Two years ago I saw Phyllida Lloyd’s great all-female production of Julius Caesar at the old St. Ann’s in DUMBO. Set in a women’s prison with Caesar sitting in first row of the audience when she was assassinated, the show was brilliant, visceral, and exhilarating. Last night I saw the same director and (mostly) same cast take on both parts of Henry 4 at the gorgeous new St. Ann’s near the carousel under Brooklyn Bridge. I had thought that it would be hard to top the last one but — wow! I drove home through November darkness in a whirl of emotion.
The blazing core of this production was Jade Anouka’s boxing Hotspur, who danced around the stage and dominated every scene she was in. I’ve never seen a better performance of this part, never seen a Hotspur so thoroughly convince me that the kingdom belonged to her. Like Ben Brantley in the Times, I enjoyed Harriet Walter’s melancholy King Henry, but for me it became Hotspur’s play. Continually in training, she punched a big bag, ran through sit-ups, dips, and push-ups with her fellow rebel commanders, and, whether mocking a courtier-knight or the sword-and-buckler Prince of Wales, flamed out the fiery knight’s language.
Hotspur’s best scene, however, may have been the most domestic. Ready to join the rebel forces, the commander wrapped his hands in blood-red tape, called for his horse, and lashed out at his wife, played with powerful authority by Sharon Rooney. The visual contrast between the small, fit, dark-skinned Anouka in her athletic gear with her hair dyed red and the large, pale-skinned Rooney in a bathrobe with jet black hair and an Irish accent made the marriage seem mis-matched. But when Lady Percy mirrored her husband’s anger back to him — “Do you not love me? … / Well, do not, then, for since you love me not / I will not love myself” (2.3) — the warrior froze and almost broke. He must go to war, he can’t go to war. In that moment of stillness I almost fell out of my seat.
He couldn’t stay frozen forever, but the force of that moment recast the non-sequitur-ish following lines about his horse:
Come, wilt thou see me ride?
And when I am a horseback I will swear
I love thee infinitely.
The horse, that symbol of chivalric prowess and physical strength, gave Hotspur a vehicle through which to bear the emotions that were running him down. Infinite love can only ride, not walk, as he felt it. Rooney’s Lady Percy would also appear later in the first scene of Henry IV, Part 2 (this production runs through both parts in an intermissionless 2:15, though at the cost of cutting most of Part 2) to lament her husband’s body alongside her father. As she mourned Hotspur, it was hard not to feel that some of the fire had gone out of the play.The other unexpectedly great performance was Jenny Jules as Worcester, Hotspur’s uncle and the shrewdest of the rebel generals. Jules had stolen the show as Cassius back in 2013, but even so I wasn’t prepared for how central she made this character to the play. Worcester’s bitter speech to King Henry the night before the battle — “For you my staff of office did I break / In Richard’s time, and posted day and night / To meet you on the way and kiss your hand” (5.1) — became the smartest and most painful political declaration in the play. It’s amazing what brilliant actors can do to re-orient a play I’ve taught and seen so many times!
Though slightly overshadowed by the charisma of these rebels, the central figures of Hal and Falstaff did not disappoint. Clare Dunne, who had played a brilliant Portia in Julius Caesar, flavored Hal with teenage bitterness; sitting silent during his royal father’s first counsel scene (1.3) with Beats headphones covering his ears, this prince showed exactly what he thought of Daddy’s day job. In wrestling with Hotspur, Hal punctuated her completion of the dying knights final lines — Hotspur said, “No, Percy, thou art dust / And food for — ” and Hal jumped in to finish, “For worms, brave Percy” (5.4) — with a brutal and sadistic twist of the knife in her opponent’s belly. I don’t know if this cast will play Henry V, but this king would make a frightening opponent. On this of all nights — the night of the horrific attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015 — it was hard to watch him win.
Sophie Stanton’s Falstaff clowned brilliantly, especially when she inverted a red footstool on her head to play the King. Clearly performing for friends, she didn’t seem to care very much when the lies of buckram men or missing trinket rings were exposed. In such bravura moments as the catechism on honor (5.1), which by luck of the seating draw (the audience surrounded the stage on all four sides, and sometimes the actors mounted the risers for speeches) was performed about one foot in front of me, she seemed conscious of having the best lines in the play.
But Falstaff also brought feminist depth that cracked the frame of this hyper-masculine play. Along with Lady Percy and Zainab Hasan’s Hostess, who broke character and stormed offstage when the banter of 3.3 devolved into a series of non-Shakespearean misogynistic jokes, Falstaff reminded the audience that these were women’s bodies playing macho parts. “Stick with the Shakespeare,” said Harriet Walter, out of character, after bringing the Hostess back on stage to restart 3.3. As if the Shakespeare were less brutal!
[Spoiler alert: you might not want to read the next bit about the ending if you’re going to see the play.]
The final coup de theatre featured the new King Henry V atop a ladder, denouncing his fat friend in the last scene of Henry IV, Part 2: “I know thee not, old man.” Sophie Stanton took off the red wool cap that had marked Falstaff as the lead clown, and listened to her denouncement with long hair flowing onto her shoulders. The emotional cruelty of the new king became too much, and she broke character and tried to climb up the ladder to him, shouting out the play’s final and non-Shakespearean line of dialogue:
You’re not going to fucking leave me! Don’t fucking leave me!
Sirens blared. The house lights came up. Blue-uniformed police guards occupied the stage, twisted Falstaff’s arm into a painful behind-the-back hold, and marched her off stage. The other prisoner-actors were ordered to line up with hands on their heads. They were marched offstage, and the house went black.
The standing ovation couldn’t quite fill the void.
Go see this show before Dec 6 if you’re in NYC! I’m fiddling with my schedule to see if I can get back.