Review: Pirandello’s Henry IV – ‘earnest production let down by a dull script’

A Tom Stoppard translation of an Italian play is convincing and confusing in equal measure

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Photo portraits of 'Matilda' and 'Henry IV' looking out to the camera. Henry IV wears a crumpled crown.
Photographer: Oliver Garrett

You will be pleased (or dismayed) to hear that this Henry IV is not one of Shakespeare’s ones. Turns out Henry Bolingbroke of England didn’t have a monopoly on that name, and that this play instead concerns a Holy Roman Emperor from 300 years prior.

Well, not quite: in fact, this play is about an Italian aristocrat who suffers a blow to the head and wakes up believing he is Henry IV – the Holy Roman one, that is. For some inconceivable reason his family neglects to relieve him of this notion and instead encourages it for the following 20 years, decking out his home in 11th century fixtures and employing a cast of actors to play various members of his court. We meet him on the day a doctor comes to see what can be done about this identity confusion. Quite why the doctor wasn’t called two decades earlier I don’t know.

This little-known Italian work, here translated by Tom Stoppard, sees the delusional aristocrat visited not just by the doctor but also by Matilda, the woman he loved, her daughter, and her lover, all of whom are forced to double up as pretend courtiers to keep the illusion going. Plenty of opportunity, then, for a farcical study of madness: delusions, complicated family relationships, mistaken identity… plus there’s a love triangle of sorts, and even a decent twist in the second half. Sadly, precious little is made of the opportunities for laughs, and we have to endure this tragicomedy as plain old tragic.

The convoluted character structure necessitates a decent prior knowledge of the main players in 11th century central European history: something I, for one, was lacking. It did strike me that the story may be easier to grapple with if the fantasy element had a more familiar set of characters – the court of Henry VIII perhaps?

The cast handled this confusing and sometimes dry material well, although a somewhat hammy style pervaded. Some of this will have been first night jitters, but some was just plain old overacting. Not every line need be deep and profound, and this heavy style didn’t fit well on the intimate stage of the BT Studio.

The role of ‘Henry IV’ was gender-swapped but played as written, something that takes a large suspension of disbelief from an audience. Gender-as-performance can and should be engaged with more explicitly by productions that choose to do this, but sadly it wasn’t here. In any case, King Henry was marvellously portrayed with bubbling-over intensity and mania by Kathryn Cussons (ironically with more than a little of the Queen of Hearts about her performance) and special mention must also go to Lucy Mae Humphries who was poised and acerbic as his unrequited sweetheart Matilda.

The production itself was simple but effective, in the style of all good student plays. Costume choices left me a bit confused about when the piece was meant to be set, although since it was mostly pretend 11th century I suppose it doesn’t matter too much. I enjoyed the little pieces of music between acts, which included a clever cuckoo call motif, but the most memorable moment was one specific use of the house lights that evoked being jerked out of your doze on a late-night Oxford Tube as it stops at the Park and Ride…possibly not the intention.

This is an earnest production of an interesting idea for a play, let down by a dull script. Coming in at less than 90 minutes (half the length of one of Stoppard’s other yawn-making hits Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), it can be forgiven some of its drier moments for its solid acting and intriguing ideas.

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