Preview – Pirandello’s Henry IV – “a challenging role wonderfully enacted”

Omelette Productions presents an unconventional take on a Tom Stoppard translation with convincing performances and intricate plot

Three men on their hands and knees in a production of Pirandellos Henry IV
Source: Oliver Garrett

“I might end it on ‘wankers’” – not quite the directorial call I was expecting to preface this preview. It’s not a phrase I would connect with plays about the English monarchy, but – as I’m soon to find out – this isn’t quite the conventional retelling anyway.

It seems the primary challenge in Omelette Productions’ telling of Henry IV has been convincing the audience this isn’t the Shakespearean play of nearly identical name (though this has largely been avoided through some very effective marketing, playing card kings in sunglasses abound). The short preview I’m granted reveals it to be a very different beast – a Stoppard translation of a 1920s Pirandello play, itself based upon the medieval king. As might be expected, this makes tackling the script no easy task – both for the actors and the audience. The director, Dominic Weatherby, says that it can help to read the synopsis beforehand – although, as I note while watching it, not quite understanding every intricacy of the plot doesn’t detract from the performance before me. The overarching premise is fairly simple – a mad man believes he’s a king, others try to break him out of his delusion – but what I find particularly interesting are the subtle underlying tensions which are made so apparent.

In an effort to showcase the most characters I’m launched straight into Act 2, taking place somewhere between the lengthy exposition of Act 1 (comprising roughly half the run-time) and what I’m informed is a startling denouement. There’s a wonderful quasi-Shakespearean lyricism to the speech (despite the rather more modern profanities) – each actor takes their time over the language, and there’s never a sense of rushing or talking-over, even in a scene with so many underlying disagreements. Some wonderfully meta lines jump out at me – “how wonderful to have history on your side” – which are handled with remarkable subtlety; the lengthy philosophising of the doctor (Luke Malone) is declaimed clearly without coming across as pretentious or unnatural.

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Each actor conveys themselves with a sense of regality, in keeping with their positions (I’m informed that everyone will be wearing full period costumes as their in-play disguises – a prospect which I find quite exciting). What I’m most in awe with is how, even without the preceding exposition, subtle tensions are conveyed so effectively. Lucy Mae Humphries as Matilda conveys one of the most convincing performances, displaying the minutae of emotion in wonderful expression, body language, and mumbling (I almost wish I could lipread); there’s a fantastic, horrible dynamic between herself and her husband, Belcredi (Sunny Ramamurthy), who fears he is becoming a “bit-part character” in the entire farce.

What I’m particularly pleased to see is an influx of fresh blood – around half the cast are first years. Being a second year himself, Weatherby notes this to have been a particular point of contention in his own experience, and it’s a hopeful shift in a dramatic landscape notoriously difficult to navigate. There’s also a good amount of gender-swapping, including of the eponymous king himself (Kathryn Cussons), who was so good in audition she was cast on the spot. It’s a challenging role – “I arrive once an act and talk for six straight pages” – but wonderfully enacted. Appearing towards the end of my preview, Cussons commands the stage with the absolute mastery needed for the role, a ‘king’ at once wavering and commanding.

I’m also particularly enamoured with the staging – the BT Studio provides the perfect setting to an intimate ‘court’ life, with the audience on three sides and up close and personal with the actors. The entire space is used effectively throughout – no actors getting bunched together in a single corner – and it’s clear an incredible amount of attention has gone into how it looks. I’d be interested to watch the performance from another side of the audience, just to see if the whole scene were still as powerful as that presented to me here.

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With the St Peter’s rehearsal room not allowing for the full vision, I’m given an incredibly detailed account of the scene before we start – throne at one end, table at the other, a portrait of the king and would-be queen – which is incorporated convincingly into the performance. The portrait is gestured to despite its absence, presenting a model of royalty which certain characters both imitate and aspire to. Even the table, already littered with an interesting collection of knick-knacks and wax candles, is said to be incomplete, but already (so close I’m practically sat at the table with them) makes me feel like I’m there. I’m impressed with the clear vision which this team holds, and excited to see how it will be brought to life when it reaches its home in the BT.