The adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV not only features a all female cast set in a prison, it reduces the two part play to a short 2 hour one which runs straight through. The transformation go as far as Donmar itself which is modified to a point where the entrance has been changed and the prison experience begins as you step off the street. Even the usual programme format has been altered to fit the prison theme which maybe disconcerting for Donmar regulars.
Once settled in plastic chairs surrounded by guards, the set is similar to the Donmar’s Julius Ceasar also directed by Phyllida LLoyd, to the extent which they could have used the same fixing and paint. The adaptation brings in elements of prison tensions, spilling out into troubling bullying, mostly involving the boisterous Falstaff, gustily played by Ashley McGuire. There is a rudeness in the adaptation, from mean references involving sausage and street and even one of the ruder, but very appropriate for a woman’s prison, Chelsea chants that brings a modernity to the production. This modern detail extends to use of electronic cigarettes which sets it right in the present. All the keys scenes are present and the zippy narrative comfortably lays out the intricacies of the various factions and relationships. But the strength lies in the balance of the subtle comedy and the emotionally powerful, tear inducing scenes such as Hotspur/Lady Percy and reconciliation of Hal and King Henry to name but a few.
There are exceptional work from Jade Anouka playing Hotspur with verve, eager and youthful ambition. Clare Dunne as Hal has a great presence and her articulation sets her out as the rightful heir if nothing else. Sharon Rooney is haunting in her rendition of the ballad Daddy’s Gone and effortless in her engagement with the audience and Harriet Walter, though reduced to a relatively minor part, is as regal as Henry IV can be.
This is one of the best production at the Donmar in years and if that means repeating previously successful ideas and formats, may there be more of it.