The plot, such as it is, of Tom Stoppard's version of Pirandello's 1921 Henry IV ( running time c. 85 mins without interval) centres around the title character – or rather a nameless, rich Italian - 20 years mad, who believes himself to be the 11th century Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV. Or who doesn't believe that at all, perhaps. During a fancy-dress event he fell from his horse and hit his head. Ever since, his relatives and servants have played along by supporting his living in a condition of suspended reality, surrounded by bundles of period costumes. But now a relative arrives with a doctor in tow, tasked with curing Henry by shocking him out of his insanity and propelling him into the 21st century.
A little burst of ominously plucked chords jerks into action the three acolytes of Henry who, as the audience trickled in, are sprawled out asleep in a beautifully-lit (Dan Stedman and Will Hayman) medieval castle chamber (designed by Eleanor Ohlson); straw-strewn floor and earthenware pots on a table, overlooked by a couple of portrait photos framed on the wall. The early action's 'kill him or cure him' plan takes a longish time so that Pirandello/Stoppard leave Henry's appearance until a bit too late, the dramatic tension having dwindled somewhat by then.
In sackcloth, our hero/patient delivers a lengthy monologue discoursing upon his own predicament, his desire to fix himself unchanging in time, the question of just who in his life is playing a rôle, and the shifting nature of sanity and insanity. Pirandello seems to suggest that sanity is subjective, contingent and not at all the point of anything. But to me, even more interesting than that theme was that dealing with the nature of authority. Henry's followers delegate to him authority over them by acceding to his every whim, and he grabs that licence and proceeds to run with it while upbraiding them for their deference: 'Heaven help you if you can't cling on to your own reality', he cries.
Kathryn Cussons gives the part of Henry her best shot, but faces the difficulty that the character's allotted method of address is that of rhetorical monologue which can quite quickly become a bit of a numbing, soapbox experience. Both actor and director Dominic Weatherby are obviously well aware of the need for variety, and in this tricky part Cussons duly varies her volume and tone, and moves well. But towards the end of the play, as Henry delivered his harangue, he was hemmed in by a ring of statuesque listeners and hereabouts energy drained away from the drama.
Of the rest of the cast, Tom Bannon as Landolf, one of the Henry's acolytes, was an interestingly rational antidote to the distraction of his employer, and Sunny Roshan was notably boldly-spoken as Baron Belcredi, lover of Matilda, Henry's erstwhile romantic attachment. As Matilda herself, Lucy Mae Humphries demonstrated subtle reaction acting and had the sort of quietly spoken presence suggestive of inner energy that makes one keen to see her again in bigger rôles.
Even if this play, extraordinarily daring for its time, never reaches the suggestive heights of Pirandello's masterpiece Six Characters in Search of an Author, the themes it touches upon are stimulating and important, and Dominic Weatherby and his associates have wrestled valiantly and often successfully with its numerous difficulties. Recommended to all those looking for something experimental and intriguing.