Who is the delusional one really? The easy answer is naturally the madman, but the old acquaintances and doctor who come to cure him are hardly paragons of sanity. Once you’ve attempted to wrap your own head around this production, especially its mind-bending ending, you’ll probably emerge feeling like it’s you. At the very least, there’s plenty to puzzle over in the pub afterwards. Given Tom Stoppard’s reputation for plays that push the boundaries of instinct and understanding, it is unsurprising that he was drawn to translating this baffling but ultimately entrancing work by Luigi Pirandello.
The play opens as it means to go on, confusingly. Which Henry IV are we talking about? As it transpires, Henry IV the Holy Roman Emperor (1056-1105) rather than Henry IV of France (1553-1610). Actually, as it transpires, we are talking about neither of them, but rather a man who for 20 years has believed himself to be Henry IV following a horse riding accident at a costumed carnival. The new arrivals at the fabricated court are Matilda (Lucy Mae Humphries), whom he used to love, with her present lover Baron Tito Belcredi (Sunny Ramamurthy), her daughter Frida (Eleanor Cousins Brown), Frida’s fiancé Carlo Di Nolli (Basil Bowdler), and the doctor (Luke Malone). They have arrived in an attempt to shake Henry (Kathryn Cussons) out of his delusion.
The stand-out performance of the production is Lucy Mae Humphries as Lady Matilda, the visiting noblewoman who has a complicated history with the ‘king’. When the script gave her centre stage she portrayed her complicated emotions compellingly, bringing a sense of authentic character to the absurd situation. Particularly, she showed up her fellow actors by committing to her character and remaining dynamic, regardless of whether or not she was speaking. There was a little too much paralysed staring from anyone not being prompted by the script. That is not to say that the rest of the cast was sub-par; Kathryn Cussons held the centre of the stage admirably with her challenging extended monologues as the king. Plus, Tom Bannon and Eddie Holmes-Milner as the actor-servants brought the play’s different elements together with some brilliant physical comedy.
The Burton Taylor studio is small enough to feel constricting, and therefore director Dominic Weatherby was right to choose a thrust stage, placing the action in the centre of the audience. This format, however, posed some characteristic challenges which were not as faced as well as I may have hoped. With the audience on three sides it is essential that characters keep moving, but all too often parts of the audience were left staring at someone’s back for longer than necessary. The table and stools created opportunities to create levels or use props which were sadly neglected, and were moved around more often than moved with.
Lighting design is often most effective when it goes unnoticed, but in this case it was so impressive that it cannot go unmentioned. One particular transition (you will know which one I mean) made the audience physically react in a perfect representation of the contingent tonal and thematic change. The lighting, sound, costume, and set design all worked together to create a production which explores the thin curtain between reality and pretence.
Come to Pirandello’s Henry IV to be both bamboozled and entertained.