REVIEW: ‘Henry IV’ in Brooklyn continues prison-set Shakespearean journey

Clare Dunne (Prince Hal) and Susan Wokoma (Poins) star in Henry IV at St. Ann's Warehouse. Photo courtesy of Pavel Antonov.
Clare Dunne (Prince Hal) and Susan Wokoma (Poins) star in Henry IV at St. Ann’s Warehouse. Photo courtesy of Pavel Antonov.

NEW YORK — The last time director Phyllida Lloyd and actress Harriet Walter collaborated, audiences in London and New York had the chance to see their exquisite Julius Caesar. That play, set in all women’s prison, offered a thoughtful interpretation of the classic text, allowing the inmates to bring the play to life amid warring factions and scrutinizing prison guards. Their second collaboration, Henry IV, is similarly set in an all women’s prison, and the results are every bit as powerful and poignant.

Theatergoers who first arrive at St. Ann’s Warehouse’s new DUMBO location (across the street from the former site) will be met by a chic atmosphere and open space in the lobby. As visitors grab their tickets from the box office and purchase some drinks at the bar, all to the background images of the waterfront nearby, the play begins … in the lobby.

Before anyone takes a seat, the handcuffed prisoners (actors) are filed through the throng of audience members. Their expressions — sometimes sad, sometimes angry, always pensive — set the mood for the evening.

After their walk-through, visitors take to the bleacher-style seats, which surround the main stage area. Security guards (actors) walk around the perimeter of the theater, looking in and making sure the prisoners follow the rules. The action takes place on a faded basketball court with a variety of children’s furniture and toys scattered around. A nearby table holds a DJ station, and a percussion set provides some energetic thumping throughout the two-hour-15-minute, intermission-less performance.

Harriet Walter plays King Henry in Henry IV. Photo courtesy of Pavel Antonov.
Harriet Walter plays a prisoner playing King Henry in Henry IV. Photo courtesy of Pavel Antonov.

The play details the royal strategizing of a nation crumbling at its borders. As St. Ann’s Warehouse puts it, the tale is one of “family, duty and country.” The actors portray this warring through a series of scheming conversations, powerful speeches and moving personal anecdotes. They even draw a map on the basketball court to show the countries and what’s at stake.

Walter plays King Henry, who, in William Shakespeare’s royal drama, has the most vivid scenes at the beginning and end of the play. This doesn’t mean Walter is off the stage for long portions. As Lloyd directs this masterful piece, there’s a connection between the actor’s first character, the inmate, and the actor’s second character, the person in Henry IV. So, even though Walter’s King comes more into action near the end, she’s always looming over the action, watching and offering a leadership role among the other “actors.”

Walter is clearly one of the finest Shakespearean interpreters working in theater. Her richness on stage is largely due to her dedication to the role, its language, its cadence, its believability, its sheer energy and power. This reporter has seen her on stage in Mary Stuart on Broadway and Julius Caesar in London at the Donmar Warehouse, which is co-producing the St. Ann’s Warehouse run of Henry IV. Each time she offers the audience a scarily determined character whose gazes can impress, who’s linguistic omnipotence is stunning and whose frailty is never too far behind the powerful exterior.

Her King Henry is a combination of comradeship and cunning, a creation of royal decree and historical significance. When Walter talks in the role, the surrounding characters, and by proxy the audience, listen with full attention.

Another standout among the talented cast is Sophie Stanton as Falstaff, arguably one of Shakespeare’s most interesting and memorable characters. Falstaff, especially with Stanton’s spot-on interpretation of the role, provides the evening with much of the humor. The character bounds across the stage, taking on friend and foe with a sardonic wit and self-referential candor. Stanton knows how to milk every laugh out of the funny lines in the play, and this is especially true in Lloyd’s production. Because each actor plays two parts (inmate and Shakespearean character), there is a push and pull at times between the two. So, Falstaff offers a few humorous jokes, to advance the play, for sure, but also to pass the time in the stark surroundings. Once the laughs end, once the action on stage turns violent, Falstaff melts into the background, and in the character’s place is a prisoner, who seemed to relish the chance to enliven the environment with a few smiles.

When reality sets in for these women, it’s a sad, sad look of despair and loss of freedom. Their escape appears to be the play itself.

Clare Dunne’s Hal is as interesting a creation as Henry and Falstaff. Perhaps no other character receives as full an arc as this future king. Dunne’s interpretation is one of youthful rebellion and high aspirations. The conspiring starts early and never seems to end.

Other highlights among the talented cast: Jade Anouka’s Hotspur, Karen Dunbar’s Vernon and Bardolph, Jenny Jules’ Worcester and Peto, and Sharon Rooney’s Lady Percy and Gadshill.

Lloyd and company have created something special at St. Ann’s Warehouse and the Donmar Warehouse. Having an all-female interpretation of these Shakespearean history plays is refreshing; however, placing them within the unique and memorable surroundings of a prison proves to be downright brilliant. The actors already had so much material to digest and ponder with the Bard’s words, but now they have the chance to go deeper and sometimes in a different direction. The role of “actor” is brought to powerful and prophetic life thanks to the unique setting. These actors are playing actors playing parts, and that sense of layering works wonders on the stage.

Extended through Dec. 13, Henry IV is one of the strongest entries of the New York theatrical season. And with memories of its predecessor, Julius Caesar, and promises of a concluding chapter to this trilogy, the play takes on an important history unto itself.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • Henry IV
  • A co-production by St. Ann’s Warehouse and Donmar Warehouse
  • By William Shakespeare
  • Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
  • Starring Jade Anouka, Jackie Clune, Shiloh Coke, Karen Dunbar, Clare Dunne, Zainab Hasan, Jenny Jules, Sharon Rooney, Sophie Stanton, Carolina Valdés, Harriet Walter, Susan Wokoma, Erick Betancourt, Victor Cervantes Jr., Glenn Feary and Tomike Ogugua
  • Running time: 135 minutes
  • Currently playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse at 45 Water St. in Brooklyn, N.Y. Click here for more information on tickets.
  • Rating: ★★★★

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications.

E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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