Donmar Warehouse (King’s Cross Theatre North)
This was the second part in a trilogy of Shakespeare plays, not obviously thematically linked as plays but performed in a consistent manner – with an all-female cast headed by Harriet Walter and a linking framing device that all the plays are being performed by a group of female prisoners. The first part was Julius Caesar.
This was an even more stripped-back version – seeking as it did to combine to combine two whole plays into just over two hours of intense action. Unsurprisingly (to me) it concentrated on the first one, leaving out Falstaff’s dodgy soldierly dealings and telling a more straightforward tale of unsatisfactory father-son* relationships – Hal and Falstaff, Hal and Henry, and Hotspur and Northumberland.
The story we had at the start was that of Mary, a smack addict who had detoxed in jail and was due to leave the prison soon – the story was delivered by Clare Dunne who played Hal. The setting this time was – perhaps – the prison’s playroom – full of incongruous bright plastic toys which stood in well for the Eastcheap shenanigans in particular and meant you could never forget the core of the play.
Following on from Marys story the play had strong drug-based under and overtones – Hal and Falstaff openly sharing and trading bags of cocaine, the boxing-mad Hotspur seeming to have a hint of the ‘roid rage in his actions. The actors also got to indulge in some graffiti, creating the map of England which Hotspur, Glendower and Mortimer on the floor with spray-paints which helped to bring us all into the action (and would that a river could be so easily diverted as pulling out an old blue rope!).
The Glendower scene, when Welsh mysticism meets English pigheadedness, was as funny as ever.
Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?
Sophie Stanton as Falstaff was great** – a sort of Norman Stanley Fletcher style old lag who had clearly been around the block a few times, she knew how to steal the scene and get the whole audience laughing by nicking someone’s seat. But again the acting and direction was nimble enough to urn on a dime, such as when the taunting of Mistress Quickly turned into prison bullying of the prisoner/actress – the discomfort was worth it for the line about “a twat as big as a Tardis” and Harriet Walter/Hannah’s deadpan “stick to the fucking Shakespeare”***.
Special props as well to Sheila Atim as Lady Percy who showed so strongly the vulnerability of the wife left behind and sang a haunting rendition of Glasvegas’s Daddy’s Gone that clearly spoke to the prisoners’ situation as well****. And OK at this point the whole cast slightly threw off the pretence of the prison to start showing off their musical talent (Harriet Walter can play the flute) but I REALLY DIDN’T MIND because it was just perfect.
The fight scenes – always tricky – were a beautiful choreographed mixture of boxing and something far more dirty. “The Douglas” had knockout blows and acrobatics to deal with the enemy, while Hal and Hotspur’s climactic duel descended into a brawl – ending in what I felt was the only slight misstep of the whole production, as Hotspur’s dying speech was ended by Hal literally twisting the knife – not in keeping with the honourable prince who was emerging otherwise.
Harriet Walter’s Henry was a hard, firm king – unwilling to let slip one iota of control*****, his trust in his son worn away by repeated lies, he seemed to have no faith that Hal’s deathbed promises would be kept. Again the whole cast gave incredibly open and honest performances and there was a real sense of a company forming, of continued prisoners characters across the roles played which made me particularly grateful to be seeing them all together.
But – of course – Henry IV is really Hal’s play, and Clare Dunne seized it, from sweet wag to sweet hope of England. The growth of Hal into a king was clearly doubled with the story of Mary getting clean, and the repudiation of Falstaff at the end felt like a breath of hope for the prisoner, ending with her firm re-affirmation of Hal’s intention to banish all Falstaff stood for:
Falstaff: Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world!
Prince: I do, I will.
*Mother-daughter? Parent-child? Let’s just accept the gender-bending going on here makes all pronouns acceptable, and tell me if you get confused at any point.
** Especially when singing Money (That’s what I want)
*** A meta-statement if ever there was one…
**** The 2014 production had Sharon Rooney in the role, so presumably she did the accent and everything.
***** The crown was an incredible Irn Bru can and gaffer tape construction which looked suitably uncomfortable to wear.