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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
Henry IV
by Lizzie Loveridge

As a madman he is even more impressive.
--- Belcredi
Henry IV
Ian McDiarmid as Henry IV and Francesca Annis as Matilda
(Photo: Ivan Kyncl)
With the exception of Six Characters in Search of an Author, the theatrical trompe l'oeil plays of the Sicilian playwright Luigi Pirandello fail to engage me. The "is he/isn't he" dilemmas seem to me trite and, instead of fascinating, leave me not caring whether "he is or he isn't". Too often the point of the play seems to be to underline the dramatic illusion rather than to create an organic mystery which is plot driven. So what of this 100 minutes of play (including interval) and starring both the excellent Ian McDiarmid and the luminescent Francesa Annis, in the capable hands of director Michael Grandage and in a new version by our foremost modern playwright, the incomparable Tom Stoppard?

In the confusingly titled Henry IV, McDiarmid plays an unnamed Italian nobleman who, while taking part in a costumed pageant, has a riding accident which leaves him mad. He is convinced that he is Henry IV, not the French protestant Henri of Navarre and not the English Henry IV, Bolingbroke, father of the more famous Henry V, but Holy Roman Emperor and medieval German king who was in dispute with the Pope, Gregory VII. Over two decades his every medieval whim has been pandered to by his retinue of eleventh century clothed servants. The play opens when he is visited by his old flame Matilda (Francesca Annis), her current husband/lover Belcredi (David Yelland) and the doctor (Robert Deneger). Their plan is to cure "Henry IV" by making him come face to face with Matilda and her daughter dressed identically. The daughter Frida (Tania Emery) is to look as he would have known her mother all those years ago at the time of the accident. Onstage two large portraits remind us what they looked like then. The visitors have to dress up in costume and pretend to be characters known by Henry IV. We are told that he remembers the costumes but not the faces - maybe a reference to theatre audiences' disbelief suspended by costume. Are only the clothes important to the viewer, not who is in them?

Much of the plot centres on this illusion. after a great build-up McDiarmid enters in sackcloth and ashes, two crosses etched as if scarred on his face, stammering, and all too swiftly graduating to complete shouting lunacy. When later he reveals to his servants that he was "cured" eight years before, we realise that he is having fun at the expense of his visitors. Matilda is made to play his mother in law Adelaide while he teases her with stories about his supposed wife, her supposed daughter. A subsequent twist is yet to come. McDiarmid as Henry manipulates his entourage, making them kiss the ground three times and then reminding them that only "the weight of a word" has made them comply, "crushed them".

There is too little for me of Stoppard's fine repertoire of wit but the "Psychiatrists should graduate in linguistics not medicine" line raises the best laugh of the evening. The opening illusion of the first act that we are in a medieval play doesn't happen here because of the modern language used by the manservants. Stoppard has trimmed Pirandello's original down to its barest bones.

Ian McDiarmid is in an acting class all of his own as the sane/lunatic nobleman. Francesca Annis does little other than to gaze in wide eyed amazement at "Henry IV" while David Yelland, dressed as a monk, is taunted by Matilda's former suitor. The play feels like the situation, the characters all revolve round the nobleman just as the supporting cast take their lead from McDiarmid's sun while they are tributary planets.

Christopher Oram's massive fluted columns dominate the set. The house of Giorgio Armani dresses the modern day Italians stylishly and expensively. Does this piece of frivolity have anything deep or significant to say about the nature of illusion? Maybe for some but not for me. Is this another self indulgent play about the futility of existence? Yawn! "Heaven help you if you don't cling to your own reality" says the enigmatic "Henry IV" Precisely!
Henry IV
Written by Luigi Pirandello
In a new version by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Michael Grandage

Starring: Ian McDiarmid, Francesca Annis
With: James Lance, Stuart Burt, Neil McDermott, Nitzan Sharrron, Brian Poyser, Orlando Wells, David Yelland, Robert Demeger, Tania Emery
Set and Costume Designer: Christopher Oram
Lighting Designer: Neil Austin
Sound: Fergus O'Hare
Music: Adam Cork
Running time: One hour forty minutes without an interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6624
Booking to 26th June 2004.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 5th May 2004 performance at the Donmar Warehouse, Earlham Street, London WC2 (Tube: Covent Garden)
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