‘Presume not that I am the thing I was’ in Lloyd’s radical new Henry IV

Henry IV – Donmar Warehouse, until 29 November 2014 (tickets)

So here we are back at the Donmar Warehouse, back in a Phyllidia Lloyd production, back in prison, back with an all-female cast and, sadly, back to howls of protest emanating from the comment boards. Despite the compelling evidence of last year’s Julius Caesar for the benefits of seeing women perform ‘male’ roles, including Harriet Walter putting in the performance of the year as Brutus, little seems to have changed and so the old Harriet Walter (King Henry) 2 Photo credit Helen Maybanks.jpgarguments have been dusted off and trotted back out.

To incite further ire Phyllidia Lloyd has radically altered Shakespeare’s original text. This is not a snip here, a cut there. This is Henry IV Parts I and II, totalling almost six hours of performance, smashed together and pared down to 120 minutes. That really is an audacious move.

It is also a smart one. May directors have discovered how difficult it is to change Shakespeare by working around the fringes; if you are looking to show something new within something old then far better to prune the excess foliage until what is obscured below is revealed. Shakespeare’s talent did on occasion lead to an explosion of brilliance, his imagination working so fast that one play can contain more plot strands than most writers can work into several; this is his genius but the audience, unpicking the complexity of plot and language, can lose focus on anything that isn’t centre-stage.

Henry IVIn Henry IV productions almost all exclusively focus on the Hal/Falstaff dynamic; it is the interesting complexity of the prince we know will become the near-mythic Henry V, and his relationship with the greatest tragicomic creation of his age. However in Lloyd’s reduction we see this become a play that focuses on the dynamics of a father with two sons, and a son with two fathers.

With Harriet Walter as the dying king it makes sense to ensure that the most is made of an actor of her calibre. By barely cutting Henry IV’s lines, it makes the role far more central to the play. Much of Falstaff’s activities outside of Hal’s orbit are cut and this results in a balancing of Falstaff and Henry IV and creates two much clearer allegiances for Hal.

The resulting time is given over to the rebels, and in particular Jade Anouka’s sparky Hotspur – a brilliant performance that brings to vivid life Frank Kermode’s description of Hotspur’s lines being ‘anti-poetry, a contempt for poetry as flummery and affectation’. By stripping the text it aligns Hotspur and Hal as the son the king wished he had and the son that he wished he hadn’t. It also allows room for Hotspur’s wife, Lady Percy (Sharon Rooney), to shine. The scenes with her husband and mourning his death are often lost amid the action but here they are in focus and Rooney gives a heartbreakingly tender performance of someone who loses a husband and then desperately seeks to avoid losing a father.

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Clarity of thought amidst the blurred lines

Blurred Lines – The Shed, National Theatre until 22 February

Watching Blurred Lines, Nick Payne’s latest play created in close collaboration with director, Carrie Cracknell and the eight members of the all-female cast, is not a particularly comfortable experience for a male reviewer. This is not because it consists of seventy minutes of radicalised polemic damning all men to one of Dante’s more unpleasant circles of hell but rather because it does the reverse; performances are restrained, arguments are calm and reasonable, but clearly lying underneath the surface is an anger. An anger one suspects is born out both of individual experience and universal frustration.

It is primarily directed at rather oblique targets; the unthinking gender stereotyping that is ingrained into societies structures, the hardwired responses that define human relationships and the way that our understanding of women is being moulded Blurred Lines, The Shed by the relentlessly battery of consumer culture.

To describe the production as a play is not quite accurate, as it suggests a more cohesive piece that has a narrative thread running through it. What is presented is more a series of case studies – template models of the gender imbalances women face on a daily basis. This approach is perhaps not surprising, in part because it is based on Kat Banyard’s book, The Equality Illusion, and also because the purpose is to present the universal alongside the individual.

If this all sounds a little dry then the collaborative feel of the work, performed by an excellent cast, give the scenes the relaxed feel of a community workshop rather than the cold air of a lecture theatre. The bite-size chunks also suit the modern world’s preferred way of digesting information; in the internet age grand narratives are out and bullet-point lists are in. If you don’t engage with one scene – and not all of them work perfectly – then don’t worry as another will be along in a moment.

Blurred Lines is bookended with two stand-out scenes. Nick Payne, as he has demonstrated in previous work, has a poet’s ear for finding something musical in everyday language. This is showcased in the first scene, which reminds of the opening to London Road, itself a piece of verbatim theatre, and that demonstrates that real speech, taken out of context, can contain a tremendous power and vitality.

The scene sets the play’s direction with a wonderfully observed perspective of what being a woman means to other people. The cast come together as one voice with many mouths to present the audience with a series of tart one-liners of how women are portrayed. In the scene women are broken down to nameless, definable adjectives; when they are deemed worthy of being given more status it is directly through their relationship to a male. They become ‘wife of…’, ‘mother of…’ and through this their lives are given an implicit meaning.

The round starts with common descriptions that soon descend to absurdity and anger with the relentless repetition and the fall-back to common descriptors. Rose West’s ‘character face’ repeats again and again, and any initial amusement fades as the audience understands that it is another example of the malleability of the English language that has learnt to hide overt misogyny behind a second, socially acceptable double-speak.

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