Monday, November 16, 2015

Phyllida Lloyd's Henry IV: A Paucity of Ideas

Clare Dunne (as Prince Hal) and Jade Anouka (as Hotspur) in Henry IV at St. Ann’s Warehouse. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

The Donmar Warehouse’s all-female Julius Caesar, which St. Ann’s Warehouse brought over from London two years ago, was an exciting and provocative reimagining of Shakespeare’s tragedy, but Henry IV, from the same venue and the same director, Phyllida Lloyd, has little to recommend it. The production, which runs for two hours and fifteen minutes (without intermission) but feels much longer, is really Henry IV, Part I with three scenes added from Part II, and like Lloyd’s Caesar it’s set in a women’s prison. Seriously? That was an illuminating way to stage Caesar, which is about power. Henry IV is a male coming-of-age story, and secondarily it concerns the burden of kingship; all that the omnipresence of tough women in the roles does is to underline and render ironic the notion of machismo, which isn’t a theme of the play. And you really have to wonder: doesn’t Lloyd have any other ideas?

Harriet Walter, an indelible Brutus in Caesar – and the only reason to see the Royal Shakespeare Company revival of Death of a Salesman in the West End last summer, where she was Linda Loman opposite Antony Sher as Willy – plays King Henry, and she brings poise and authority to the role. But she’s landed on an oddly phlegmatic vocal affect that is distracting in the big speeches (especially “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”). Everyone on stage has a strong accent from somewhere in the British Isles (just as they did in Caesar), and the accents seem to be the point; it’s like listening to a stage full of fledgling Meryl Streeps competing to show off the technical perfection of their brogues. Clare Dunne (double-cast as Portia and Octavius Caesar last time out) hasn’t made a clear decision about how to play Prince Hal; the famous soliloquy (“I know you all”), which gives us a sense of how we’re supposed to see the prince, has no special color. Jade Anouka’s Hotspur is a tiresome restless adolescent. Sharon Rooney plays his wife, Lady Percy, on one note of whiny self-righteousness. (Her Scots accent is the most egregious example of the overemphasis on geographical variety in the performances.) One of the trio of scenes lifted from Part II is the exchange between her and her father-in-law, Northumberland, after Hotspur’s death on the battlefield at Hal’s hands, and in this production it’s not only extraneous but embarrassingly badly acted. And since Carolina Vald├ęs, as Northumberland, is tiny and big-boned Rooney towers over her, the effect of Lady Percy’s shoving Hotspur’s corpse in his face (an attempt to deter him from going after his son into the war) is inadvertently comic. Except for Sophie Stanton, a robust and witty Falstaff, the ensemble acts up such a storm that you’re exhausted long before the show gets to the Battle of Shrewsbury, and what they’re doing is really nothing more than a technically proficient form of playacting.

I can’t figure out what Lloyd thought she was doing here. Every now and then the play within the play (i.e., the play within the prison) gets derailed by what I guess is supposed to be an ad-lib or interpolation. Mistress Quickly (Zainab Hasan), the hostess of the inn where Hal and Falstaff and their crew hang out, is assailed not just by the usual kidding but by modern insults that bring her to tears and force one of the guards to interrupt the proceedings. The worst example of this textual meandering is the Gadshill robbery, in which the victims are, for some reason, a pair of American tourists. God knows I wouldn’t have wanted to prolong the production, but I did wonder why Lloyd cut so much Shakespearean text but thought it necessary to throw in this cut-rate farce bit. There’s a clever interlude where the actors, using paint and string and a couple of empty bottles stuffed with paper signs indicating England and Wales, replicate the map of the territory under dispute on the stage floor. Aside from Stanton’s imitation of the king as a stuffy aristocrat with a parody of a late-Empire Oxbridge accent, that’s the only piece of invention in the Donmar Henry IV I can honestly say I enjoyed.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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