Tom Stoppard makes a fitting choice to tackle a new translation of Henry IV. Both the 1922 play and its Italian author, Luigi Pirandello, are infrequently performed in the UK, probably, as a programme note suggests, because of their cerebral nature. As the author himself of plays including Jumpers, Arcadia, The Invention of Love and The Coast of Utopia, Stoppard has faced down his own share of criticism for perceived over-intellectualisation.
But that’s forgetting that Stoppard is also a dab hand at comedy and at moulding works that amusingly marry the modern and ‘historic’ (as with Shakespeare in Love on screen). Here, he brings this light touch to bear on Pirandello’s play, in which an Italian nobleman inhabits the persona of the 11th-century German king of the title, forcing all around him to dress up and play a part in his make-believe.
In fact, you can’t help but suspect that the evening’s few “moments of lucidity” owe as much to Stoppard as Pirandello. The play spins through several laboured orations on art versus artifice, truth versus lies, illusion versus reality, surface versus substance, insanity versus sanity … and more of the same.
When yet another rhetorical round is drawn to a pithy close - Ian McDiarmid letting slip his mask of carnival character and crying out in exasperation “What a bunch of wankers!” or “You’re all getting on my tits” - there are titters of relief and weary agreement from the audience.
From the moment he enters in sackcloth, voice cracked, gait shuffling, McDiarmid mesmerises as the Miss Havisham-style ‘Henry’, his life and (thanks to a life-sized portrait) his image frozen in time on the day of the pageant 20 years earlier when he was betrayed by his beloved (a vainly gullible Francesca Annis), felled from his horse and plunged into ‘madness’.
Elsewhere in Michael Grandage’s fine-looking production – played out on Christopher Oram’s colonnaded, faux ancient set that honours Pirandello’s characteristic layers of knowing theatricality – the performances are somewhat uneven (though David Yelland stands out as a smug sceptic). And certainly, as with Franco Zeffirelli’s high-profile West End revival of Pirandello’s Absolutely! (perhaps) last year, unsuccessful in attempting to make the piece work on any meaningful emotional level.
They’re just Pirandello’s puppets, I suppose. At least, in another fitting Donmar production choice, they’re wardrobed by Giorgio Armani. The emperor’s new clothes are beautiful indeed, but they can’t disguise the dated, and frankly tedious, quality of the source material.
- Terri Paddock