Note: This is a review of the performance on Tuesday 28th October 2014.
Back at the end of 2012 Phyllida Lloyd staged Julius Caesar at the Donmar with an all female company (review here). Despite the best efforts of Harriet Walter as Brutus it was not a success. The all-female casting had nothing to do with this, the problem was Lloyd's bizarre concept of setting the evening in a women's prison. This evening suggests that Lloyd is not a director to change her mind. We're back for two pretty interminable hours in the same setting, with even less to redeem it than last time round.
My irritation with the whole enterprise began when I received an e-mail on Saturday informing me that the performance was going to take place in a secure premises on Earlham Street and that I must present myself at the Seven Dials Club (42 Earlham Street) in order to be directed to these premises. What this in practice means is that you enter via the back stairs of the Donmar rather than through the normal front of house areas, and are confronted by uniformed FoH staff clearly intended to be impersonating police officers. I was thankful that I had learned from Julius Caesar and purchased a seat in the Circle as the horrible grey plastic chairs which were inflicted on Stalls patrons for that production were once more in evidence. This whole charade is annoying and as far as I was concerned thoroughly ineffectual in terms of persuading me that I was inside a prison. I did not start the show feeling particularly warm towards the enterprise.
As far as the performance proper is concerned the problem is basically exactly the same as that which undid Lloyd's Caesar. Lloyd simply never gives any kind of satisfactory explanation as to why these prisoners are performing this play. As in Caesar there are some half hearted attempts to suggest a play-without-the-play in terms of relationships between the prisoners off-stage but this is too shallowly done to be at all convincing. In terms of the Shakespeare itself I found it pretty much impossible to suspend disbelief and take seriously these performers' claims to be Henry IV, Prince Hal, Falstaff and so on. From early on I felt thoroughly disengaged from the whole thing, and frankly only stubbornness, the perennial theatregoer's hope that something will happen to improve a turkey, and Harriet Walter kept me from walking out.
Of the performers labouring beneath this failed concept only Harriet Walter's Henry IV really convinces. She alone when delivering the text almost made me believe the whole crazy nonsense was not in fact there, that she was a king, that England was at stake. Unfortunately, Walter is off-stage for large parts of the proceedings. Clare Dunne's Hal shows promise but delivers the text too much at the same level from start to finish. Nobody else really succeeded in making an impression on me and overall there is too much breathless delivery of text – attention to Walter's manner and delivery would be instructive for many.
A word should perhaps also be said regarding the text which conflates Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 into a single 2 hour piece. Others, who know the originals better, inform me that this is in fact mostly Part One. My impression, having read the plays at university years ago, was that whoever did the adaptation had tried to keep in all the famous lines with the result that they often seem to appear out of nowhere and thus lack some of their usual punch. The same applies to events – Falstaff's dismissal falls rather flat because the last time we see him with Hal all appears amicable, and Owen Glendower (a nicely comic turn from Jackie Clune) disappears unexplained – making the security of the realm hard to believe in.
This feels all its two hours, and apart from Walter's performance has little to recommend it. Rumour has it that Lloyd and the Donmar are planning a third installment. On the basis of parts 1 and 2 it'll be one to avoid. This certainly is.