Digital theatre review: Henry IV (Donmar)
Ivan Radford | On 04, Jun 2020
Theatre has the power to transform – not just people, but lives – something that’s borne out by the long-standing tradition of theatre workshops in prisons. 2012’s Caesar Must Die took cameras behind bars to explore the boundaries between rehearsing and performing in fascinating detail. Two years later, Phyllida Lloyd went one step further with a theatrical production set in a women’s prison that saw audience members file into their seats with barked instructions.
The play? Henry IV – that is, a combination of Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2. Cutting the texts dramatically yet judiciously, she takes Shakespeare’s classic history of royalty, duty and loyalty and frames it inside a women’s prison, where inmates at putting on – what else? – a Shakespeare play. The result teases new details out of the texts, while adding layers on top of them.
At the same time, it boils everything down to three key players: King Henry IV (Harriet Walter), Hal, aka. the future Henry V (Clare Dunne), and Falstaff (Ashley McGuire). The latter is a highlight, delivering lines with a dirty vest and a grounded wit, while Dunne is a fantastic Hal. Harriet Walter is as magnificent as you’d expect, after her turn as Julius Caesar in Lloyd’s 2012 gender-swapped incarnation – the first in a Shakespeare trilogy of which this is the second entry.
This is no less radical, introducing workout sequences before battle scenes (intense boxing bouts featuring a fiery Jade Anouka as Hotspur and Cynthia Erivo as the Earl of Douglas), giving characters football tops and finding a genuine sense of rebellion brewing under the floorboards of its tale of growing up amid shifting power dynamics. The Donmar, as with 2013’s Coriolanus, is an ideal setting for the bold staging, which immerses us in the contained world of its confining prison, until the guards interrupt at a crucial climax to pull someone off-stage – and just when the meta-framework might seem to be a distraction, the text and subtext dovetail brilliantly. Taking a tale of masculinity and removing the men, it’s a thought-provoking piece of theatre – not least because it arose out of a collaboration with Clean Break theatre company, which works with women whose lives have been impacted by the criminal justice system.
Henry IV is available on Digital Theatre, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription, Marquee TV, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription, and Broadway HD, as part of a $10.79 monthly subscription. It is also available on BritBox, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.