Brooklyn, NEW YORK -- After a blissful stroll along the water in New York’s Dumbo district, I strode into Saint Ann’s Warehouse with an invigorating blend of Zen and zest. Stepping into the venerable old building, I was met with a plain yet tasteful lobby. Passing through the curtain to the stage, however, I found myself on what could have been the set for an episode of Orange is the New Black.
Walter on the program
Donmar Warehouse’s rendition of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, an all-female production set in prison, took place on a basketball court. The audience surrounds the stage on all four sides, as the actors duke it out with boxing gloves and relax on toy-plastic furniture. The effect is to allow Shakespeare to transcend time in place. Though produced in Britain, this show is ideally suited to the current America. At a time when the nation is heading into a transition of leadership, there is perhaps no more fitting time to introduce a story of a young degenerate-turned-liberator rising to take the reins of leadership from an indecisive yet benevolent predecessor. Though the coming presidential election is far from a sure thing, Hillary Rodham Clinton has opened the door to a bright future of female leadership regardless. America is ready for a new wave of leaders, much like the ones who enact this epic story. Harriet Walter’s (King Henry) stoicism in the face of adversity is clearly reflected in the resolute mask she uses to address her subjects. Only when the public eye is averted does she expose the weight that leading a nation has mounted on her shoulders. Her sparkling performance highlights both sides of the coin experienced by a King (Or Queen). She confidently delivers her lines with the stillness and poise that only an actor who has earned her stripes over a career of standing center stage.
Sporting a Chelsea jersey and beats headphones, Claire Dunne (Prince Hal) provided a cunning and charming prince. Her resilient spark flickered towards Mrs. Walter at first, and, in an instantly relatable moment to anyone who has suffered through teen angst, grew to a flame when it was met by a stern vacancy from her progenitor. This, along with a string of cocaine packets (this is still a prison, after all) is what pushes her, almost heart-breakingly towards Sophie Stanton (Falstaff). Because of Phyllida Lloyd’s directorial choice to employ this pronounced metaphor, Hal’s addiction, Falstaff becomes a far less likeable character. The play seemed to center more on Hal learning to love her father than falling out of love with Falstaff.
Dunne (top) defeating Anouka (bottom)
Despite Falstaff’s receding somewhat into the periphery of the story, Ms. Dunne and Mrs. Walter provide more than enough depth to satisfy Hal’s growth. It helps that the two look eerily similar, enough to be mother and daughter. There is a poignant beauty in seeing Henry’s face, without its cynical worry lines, reflected in a mirror of youthful exuberance. One represents reality, the other dreams. Their scenes would have been mesmerizing even without words.
An incredibly strong supporting cast, highlighted by a fiery Jade Anouka as Hotspur, and a host of gritty prison stereotypes yield a riveting atmosphere. Transitions are provided by Kanye West and AC/DC, while the map of the battlefield is drawn across the stage in spray paint. The play is intended as a play within a play, with the actors playing inmates playing characters. There are times when Lloyd goes so far as to have a complete break in action as characters from other scenes rush onstage to clear a fray or settle a disagreement. At one point, Mistress Quickly (Zainab Hasan) breaks down entirely and goes off on a tangential monologue about not being heard, before running off stage. Mrs. Walter hurries on stage with guards, retrieves her, and then scorns the actors for going off script. “Stick to the Shakespeare,” she warns Stanton, before sitting in the audience to watch the rest of the scene.
Stanton and co.
While a prison alarm and lineup at the end of the play proves haunting, to break up the action mid-scene only serves to jar the audience out of the story. Suddenly I found myself wondering about all these implied subplots and confused over the characters’ exterior roles rather than returning to the world of Hal and Henry. It was an unnecessary gimmick that was not needed to assist the brilliance of the cast.
I would advise anyone reading this to get tickets if possible, but unfortunately I was lucky enough to catch the final performance. None-the-less, this remains one of the better shows I have seen all year, and speaks to the continued brilliance of Dame Harriet Walter, who continues to leave an illustrious legacy as one of Britain’s brightest stars of the stage.