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Henry IV

Higher Crime

Donmar Warehouse, St Ann's Warehouse, Brooklyn, New York
Saturday, November 22, 2015, Block 1, D–109&110 (middle of bleachers for theater in the round)
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

Regular readers of know that I have not posted reviews of many of the productions we've seen the past year, caught up as we've been in the shuffle of this mortal coil. is intended to serve as a record of staged productions and a resource for those who are staging and studying these plays. Therefore, it is my intention to post these backlogged reviews going forward along with new reviews of currently running shows. Revisiting these past productions comes with the benefit of hindsight and the experience of what has occurred in the meantime. So, we'll be applying a bit of that mustard as we catch up on these reviews.

Hal in black tanktop and gray sweats, with green fingerless gloves and an olive green sleeve on the elbow of her right arm, lifts a crown made of aluminum drink cans onto her head.
Clare Dunne as Hal in Donmar Warehouse's production of William Shakespeare's Henry IV at St. Ann's Warehouse. Below, Hal and Poins (Susan Wokoma) before the GadsHill robbery. Photos by Helen Maybanks (above) and Pavel Antonov (below), St. Ann's Warehouse.

Phyllida Lloyd accomplished a landmark theater experience when she set William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar inside a woman's prison for Donmar Warehouse's 2013 production. The prison environment put the audience inside the psyche of Caesar's Rome while the play unfolded as both a drama on prison politics and a depiction of women prisoners putting on the play—the focus fluidly shifting back and forth between the two frameworks—illustrating the nerve-wracking environment Shakespeare's characters endure. Then came one of the greatest gotchas I've ever seen on stage or film when, after Caesar's assassination, the woman playing him seemingly reveals herself to be the play's director but in the end turns out to be the prison's warden. We left the theater feeling intellectually invigorated but psychologically spent, exemplifying a Shakespearean adaptation that expands the moral purview and thematic point of the original work.

Lloyd returns to the women's prison setting for the second installment of her Shakespeare trilogy, Henry IV (combining the two parts into one). She uses many of the same cast members, most notably Harriet Walter, who played Brutus in Caesar, playing the title character in Henry. However, much of what made Lloyd's Julius Caesar so intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically scintillating is missing in her Henry IV. The prison setting only serves this play in an allegorical context rather than in a social context as the Caesar production did so brilliantly.

Oh, the staging and the acting are both superb, starting even before the play begins when the prisoners are marched through the St. Ann’s Warehouse lobby. A guard shouts “Make way,” and the cast, in prison garb and chains, expressionless except for the darkness in their eyes, passes through the crowd and into the theater. We then are allowed into what turns out to be a prison basketball court surrounded on all sides by numbered bleacher blocks and chain-link fences with guards watching warily from posts atop the bleachers (design is by Bunny Christie with Ellen Nabarro). An alarm buzzer sounds and the cage doors slam.

The prisoners march in carrying toy furniture such as a Fisher-Price slide, a plush dog, and a baby doll in a stroller. "Places, ladies" a guard says, and all sit on their pieces of furniture, whereupon one prisoner excitedly exclaims that this is her last day there.

This particular prisoner turns out to be Hal (Clare Dunne), announcing what turns out to be one of the play’s allegorical references. Hal’s story starts with his “I know you all” soliloquy (altered to “I know them all” in Dunne's delivery) and ends with his coronation and rejection of Falstaff and his gang. This would cast Eastcheap as Hal’s jail, blocking him from reaching his true royal potential, and Henry's lesson to him amounts to a key step in his rehabilitation.

One thing this setting emphasizes is that Hal (apparently), Poins (probably), and Falstaff (certainly) are criminals. They speak their lines with relish about taking purses and waylaying travelers at Gadshill. When Falstaff (Sophie Stanton) admits that Hal has paid Falstaff's way at the tavern, Hal replies, "Yea, and elsewhere, so far as my coin would stretch; and where it would not, I have used my credit," whereupon Dunne pulls out an American Express card that she uses to set up lines of coke. Hal later gives Poins (Susan Wokoma) a “pennyworth of sugar” that clearly is a packet of coke.

Prison culture also factors into the depiction of the rebellion. Although the civil war that erupts in the play is fought between the royal family and the rebels of the north in alliance with Scottish and Welsh leaders, calling it "political" is something of a misnomer. It's really just factions jockeying for power and survival. "And 'tis no little reason bids us speed, to save our heads by raising of a head," says Worcester (Jenny Jules). "For, bear ourselves as even as we can, the king will always think him in our debt, and think we think ourselves unsatisfied, till he hath found a time to pay us home," a point she punctuates with a throat-slash gesture. The northern rebels are comprised of women of color, including the gym rat and boxer Hotspur (Jade Anouka) and his father, a Latino Northumberland (Carolina Valdés). The meeting of the three factions of rebels at Glendower’s castle in Wales is played out as a gang summit, the map of England spray-painted on the floor with ropes used for the adjusted borders. In this environment, Falstaff's famous soliloquy on honor is chillingly effective.

Not surprisingly, then, the Battle of Shrewsbury at the climax of Part One shifts from stage combat to prison riot. Prisoners wearing masks of Walter lie on the ground to represent the counterfeit kings as the real Henry fights the rebels. When the single combat between Hal and Hotspur commences, both wearing black t-shirts emblazoned with a white “H” on the back, Hotspur formally enters the playing space through a gate with a guard behind her. At first, Hal and Hotspur shadowbox as if the blows are landing on the other, but they eventually get down to an on-the-floor brawling scuffle cheered on by other inmates until one of the prisoners hands Hal a knife for the fatal thrust.

As with Lloyd's direction of Julius Caesar, the line between the play being staged by prisoners and the play being about prison life blurs when the players step out of their assigned characters. A scene centered on Mistress Quickly (Zainab Hasan) breaks down as the inmates go off script to start a series of insults. "Let's stick to the Shakespeare as we decided," Walter's character says. "You decided," Stanton's character returns. This gives the great Eastcheap play-within-the-play (within-the-play) scene a triple-layer effect as Hal and Falstaff alternate roles in play-acting Hal's meeting with his father the next day. Stanton's Falstaff playing King Henry speaks in a feigned, posh British accent and holds a toy teacup with her pinky finger extended. When Hal takes over the role of Henry, he dons a Burger King crown and Dunne speaks exactly like Walter's Henry. When she gets to the portion of her speech describing the “old fat man,” Stanton steps out of her Falstaff character and says, “Oh, here we go.”

In conflating the two parts into one play, Lloyd's focus hones in on the titular character of Henry and his relationship with Hal. Walter opens the play as Henry wearing a bathrobe and homemade crown stepping up on a table to give the opening speech. The action moves continuously from Henry’s speech to the first Eastcheap scene with Hal, Falstaff, and Poins, then segues immediately into the war council scene at the court. Dunne's Hal hasn’t left the stage, but she puts on headphones while attending—but not tending to—the council: she’s there (extratextually) but not really there.

Another interesting segue comes at the end of the rebel council at Glendower’s castle. As Hotspur's wife, Lady Percy (Sharon Rooney), sings to the accompaniment of Glendower (Jackie Clune) struming a guitar, the rebels—and, eventually, all the inmates—lie down on the floor. While they sleep, Walter appears at the gate atop the aisle of the bleacher Block Four—a guard, behind the gate, sharing the spotlight—to deliver Henry’s sleep-deprived soliloquy from Part Two, ending with “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” The action returns to Part One as Henry starts into his interview with Hal, who responds to the lecture with fervored defiance, as if facing down a challenge from another inmate (albeit, an inmate with higher rank in the prison hierarchy). Falstaff even intervenes here on Hal’s behalf, to which Walter's character barks, "Oh f**k off, you're not in this scene."

It was not until I read the program notes for The Tempest, the third play in Lloyd’s prison trilogy, that I understood the allegorical framework of this Henry IV. Upon undertaking Julius Caesar, Walter fashioned the character of the prisoner behind the Shakespeare role she would play as a woman interested in politics serving an extra-long sentence for a politically inspired crime. She found her example in Judy Clark, a onetime member of the Weather Underground and other American revolutionary groups of the 1970s who drove a getaway car in a 1981 Brinks armord trunk holdup during which two police officers and a security guard were killed. She was 31 at the time, mother of an 11-month-old daughter, and sentenced to 75 years to life. Moving to the second play of the trilogy, Lloyd and Walter saw Henry IV as further elaborating on the Clark story.

“The daughter only remembers her mother in prison,” Lloyd says in the program notes for The Tempest. Henry IV, then, mirrors Clark’s story “of someone wrestling with their parenthood, unable to control a child who is beyond their reach, and also someone who is occupied with their guilt about the past.”

Hal and Poins, both wearing black jackets, points in knit hat, carry light beams.This thematic context is not apparent in the production (I wouldn't learn of this thematic context for more than a year). It may even have exacerbated the show's primary fault, conflating the two parts into one play, losing Shakespeare’s own allegorical arcs, plot structure, and character dynamics. After Hotspur’s death at Shrewsbury, the action moves to Lady Percy describing that death (speaking the messenger’s lines from Part Two) and entreating Northumberland not to go to the continuing war. In this prison setting he’s clearly bent on revenge, but nothing more develops from this sequence as the action hop-scotches to Henry on his deathbed but waking up as Hal soliloquizes about the crown (skipping over Prince John's duplicity in dealing with the rebels at Gaultree Forest, which would have been interesting merged with the prison setting). Then we’re at Hal's coronation as Henry V, Dunne standing on a ladder as Hal rejcts Falstaff. Falstaff runs toward Hal and the guards intervene, leading to a commotion in which the guards order everybody to line up—including a protesting Hal (it’s her last day, remember)—and, hands on heads, they march out.

The denial of Falstaff carries a notion that once out of prison, Hal leaves all behind; yet, she’s still a prisoner as the play ends. Layer on the play’s purposed reflection on Judy Clark’s relationship with her daughter, and the prison setting premise becomes quite the mixed-up metaphor. Like all middle chapters of a three-production sequence, the true significances are not clarified until the final chapter, specifically the true meaning of Hal rejecting Falstaff, and the real role of an inmate named Hanna—the character Walter actually is playing.

Hal's discombobulation is a minor gotcha compared to the ending of Julius Caesar; the bigger gotcha will come after a mighty Tempest.

Eric Minton
February 4, 2017

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