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A CurtainUp London London Review
Henry IV

"Why, what a wasp-stung and impatient fool
Art thou to break into this woman's mood,
Tying thine ear to no tongue but thine own!."
— Northumberland
Henry IV
Harriet Walter as Henry IV (Photo: Helen Maybanks)
Returning to the site of last year's all female Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse in a joint collaboration with Clean Break, the theatre company that works with women, in and out of prison, is a production of Shakespeare's Henry IV. Women prisoners take all the roles, mostly those of men, the king Henry IV (an achingly weary Harriet Walter) and his son tearaway Prince Hal (Clare Dunne) who fraternizes with Sir John Falstaff (Ashley McGuire) and the petty criminals of the Boar's Head in Cheapside.

Henry IV has only two important female roles, that of Mistress Quickly (Zainab Hasan) and Lady Percy (Sharon Rooney). The rest are men.

But first let us concentrate on the changes to the usual venue. The Box Office and bars have moved down the road along Earlham Street on the opposite side, so that is where you can collect your tickets. You will then go into a side door up some anonymous looking stairs past some female prison warders who warn you that all mobile phones will be confiscated if found switched on. Inside rows of prison issue grey plastic chairs line the grey painted bricks of the playing area, a recreation, gym and maybe visitors room judging by the small table and chairs, and toys.

Costumes are grey uniform tracksuits but the women use toweling bath robes to give nobles a costume and the king's crown is fashioned from scrap paper and foil. It is quite clearly a production being put on in a prison. Every so often the house lights come up and sirens go off and red lights flash as the warders are alerted to a potentially dangerous situation.

Harriet Walter carries all the cares of Bolingbroke who has deposed the rightful king, Richard II, as well as father of a seemingly unsuitable heir. Only with the next generation will that sin be corrected and Hal can become the rightful king by inheritance. Even when not in role as the king, Dame Harriet has the gravitas of the elderly monarch. As a senior prisoner and maybe director, she loses patience with those who improvise on Shakespeare's words for their own ends.

At first Clare Dunne's Irish accent for Prince Hal is unexpected and conspicuous. I found myself noticing just how deeply involved with criminals Hal is like never before. The very versatile Cynthia Erivo plays Ned Poins one of the gang who hangs out with Hal. Ashley McGuire in cloth cap, vest and legs akimbo seated on a soccer ball bean bag, in that male stance that conveys being in charge, delivers Falstaff's boasting and self aggrandizement well.

I really liked the performance of Ann Ogbomo as Worcester; her years with the Royal Shakespeare Company and her professional training really show. Also outstanding are Jade Anouka as Harry Hotspur, the brave feisty warrior and son of the Earl of Northumberland, and of course talented Cynthia Erivo who also plays the rebel the Earl of Douglas as well as Poins. These three train for the battle with lively and thrilling gymnastics and boxing.

In the battle scene Harriet Walter masks are worn by many of the cast as the opposition try to find the King on the battlefield. The final battle is a boxing match between Hal and Hotspur, another man's son that Henry IV so admires.

I found this production of Henry IV better than the Julius Caesar which was so acclaimed in New York and London. Maybe we now know what to expect in the context of a women's prison and so many of the roles are played in excellent fashion. I disliked the long speeches from Hotspur's wife Lady Percy, a mismatched couple although I understand her issues with her husband are those modern women can relate to. There are some performances which are sadly not up to par in a professional context.

This condensed version of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 comes in at two hours with no interval but the essence of the work is there and Clare Dunne and Harriet Walters are absolutely believable as worried father, and reckless son who matures well . I never remember hearing before Henry IV's advice (perhaps after seven hours my concentration had drifted) to his son to concentrate on foreign wars to keep the rebels in check which of course is exactly what Hal does in Henry V.

This Henry IV is a triumph for the women!

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Henry IV
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

Starring: Harriet Walter, Cynthia Erivo, Clare Dunne, Jade Anouka, Ashley McGuire, Ann Ogbomo
With: Elizabeth Chan, Jackie Clune, Shiloh Coke, Karen Dunbar, Zainab Hasan, Jennifer Joseph, Katie Robinson, Sharon Rooney
Designer: Ellen Nabarro
Costume Designer: Deborah Andrews
Lighting: Neil Austin
Sound: Tom Gibbons
Music: Gary Ann Yee Fight Director: Kate Waters
Video Director: Duncan McLean
Running time: Two hours without an interval
Box Office: 0844 871 7624
Booking to 29th November 2014
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 10th October 2014 performance at The Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, London WC2H 9LX (Tube: Covent Garden or Leicester Square)
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