There’s a strange contradiction at the heart of the new production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, co-presented by London’s Donmar Warehouse and Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse. In this radical staging by Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!), the play is performed by an all-female cast. That certainly counts as a form of empowerment, especially since Shakespeare wrote few juicy roles for women, and in his day his plays were performed only by men. It’s too bad, then, that the women have to be in prison to do it.
Following on the heels of the same company’s similarly conceived Julius Caesar, seen here two years ago, the production imagines all of Henry IV — the two parts are heavily edited and combined into an intermissionless two hours, although the first part dominates — being performed in a women’s penitentiary overseen by a group of menacing guards. Before the audience is admitted into the theater, the sweatsuit-wearing performers are marched through the lobby, some keeping their heads down and others glaring at the wine-sipping, hipster crowd.
Unfortunately, the prison setting, while certainly novel, adds little to our appreciation of the play. And you’d be well advised to be familiar with the original work, because having all the characters played by almost identically dressed women makes it fairly difficult to follow, at least in the early scenes.
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Even if you accept the concept, the results are somewhat baffling. Since the setting is the prison gym, the presence of exercise equipment makes sense. But why is there kiddie furniture and toys, a beanbag chair, a DJ spinning tunes, and that most clichéd of contemporary Shakespearean production devices, a percussionist?
Along with some anachronistic language, such as a reference to Miss Piggy, absurd touches abound. Those include the travelers that Falstaff robs being an American couple from Texas; Falstaff grabbing a microphone and belting out “Money (That’s What I Want)”; Hal and Ned wearing Scream masks as their disguise; and later during a battle scene, the warriors wearing masks of King Henry’s face.
And the concept is not even consistently followed. At one point the performance is interrupted by the guards when one of the actors bursts into tears, apparently because her character was being maligned. But the guards do nothing to interfere when an audience member is drawn into the action, which is too bad since anyone allergic to audience participation prays for forceful intervention in such situations.
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It’s all very silly and distracting, and a shame, really, since the ensemble is fully capable of effectively putting over the play in straightforward fashion. Harriet Walter, her gaunt physicality making her seem like a figure from a Grant Wood painting, reaffirms her status among the great Shakespearean actors with her compellingly forceful turn in the title role. Claire Dunne, looking suitably boyish, well conveys Prince Hal’s transformation from layabout to king; Sophie Stanton, employing a thick Cockney accent, is a hilariously entertaining and ultimately moving Falstaff; and Jade Anouka is a marvel of intense physicality as the aptly named Hotspur, doing enough sit-ups and other exercises during the proceedings to fill a workout video.
The company’s previous production, Julius Caesar, worked somewhat better because the contrast between the onstage action and the framing device was less jarring. Here it mainly feels extraneous and trivial. This is the second entry in a planned trilogy. Maybe next time they could discard all the unnecessary trappings and simply make the case that female actors can play these roles as well as or better than men.
Cast: Jade Anouka, Jackie Clune, Shiloh Coke, Karen Dunbar, Claire Dunne, Zainab Hasan, Jenny Jules, Sharon Rooney, Sophie Stanton, Carolina Valdes, Harriet Walter, Susan Wokoma, Erick Betancourt, Victor Cervantes, Jr., Glenn Feary, Tomike Ogugua
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Set designers: Bunny Christie, Ellen Nabarro
Costume designer: Deborah Andrews
Lighting designer: James Farncombe
Sound designer: Tom Gibbons
Presented by the Donmar Warehouse and St. Ann’s Warehouse