If theatre – or anything for that matter – can be semi-immersive then Phyllida Lloyd’s Henry IV is just that. The Donmar Warehouse has been converted into a prison (not too much of a push considering its institutional architecture) for the duration of Lloyd’s all-female production and there’s some very theatrical security on show. You start the evening over the cobbled street at the grandly named Covent Garden Member’s Club (more grudgey than Groucho), before being frog-marched (in a fashion) to the Donmar, where you’re shown to your seats not by smiling ushers, but fierce looking prison guards.
As fun as this was, I’m not sure this over-enthusiastic scene-setting really added anything to Lloyd’s excellent production of Henry IV besides further highlighting how much the director has ripped up the Shakespeare rule book. In this all-female production, Shakespeare’s tale of kings has been condensed into one play that’s being performed by the inmates of a women’s prison. We are never told why these female prisoners chose to put on one of Shakespeare’s most masculine plays, but it’s not hard to see why a tale of bullying, ‘gangs’, violence and redemption may resonate with those accustomed to sleeping ‘in filthy hovels, stretched out on uncomfortable cots’.
This is more Henry IV Part 1 with the end of Part 2 tagged on. I enjoyed this edited highlights approach; while much is lost in the furious trimming, Lloyd’s production benefits by bringing the cracking key scenes into sharp relief – although Hal’s swift journey from boisterous barfly to worthy warrior and noble king was perhaps a little jarring.
The all-female cast are fantastic, everyone of them convincing as a Shakespeare character while never allowing their contemporary prisoner roles to be forgotten. Clare Dunn as an athletic, cocky Prince Hal was a great foil to the majestic Harriet Walter as the stern, guilt-wracked Henry IV, but it was Ashley McGuire’s Falstaff, a character I usually can’t stand, that I loved. Falstaff is, in the productions I’ve seen, played as a fat, jokey piss-take punch bag, which of course he is. But he’s also a horrid man – cowardly, lying, stealing, nasty, self-obsessed, his disregard for ‘honour’ essentially a reluctance to do anything that won’t further his own fortunes. McGuire brought out Falstaff’s nasty side, highlighting his pomposity rather than his good-time bravado. Maybe because Falstaff is the kind of man who is particularly repellent to women (witness his barbs to poor Mistress Quickly) that meant McGuire and Lloyd weren’t afraid to make him more than the play’s joker.
I usually find myself nodding in agreement when at the end of Part 2 Prince Hal (now Henry V) rejects Falstaff with a “I know ye not, old man”. But this time McGuire’s performance and her reaction to this betrayal as a female prisoner as well as a sack-swilling slob, sobbing while the guards tie her wrists with plastic wire, was genuinely moving.
There were the occasional well-positioned slips into the present day that increased the impact of the production, reminding us that we weren’t watching a straightforward play about a monarch fighting for his kingdom and heir. Hearing Shakespeare’s posturing, masculine dialogue in the mouths of women with *gasp* regional accents stripped away the stuffiness that can strangle a Shakespeare production and their delivery and the staging served to accentuat how contemporary Shakespeare’s language can sound. When McGuire’s prison alter ego slips from character during the scene where Falstaff is hurling insults at Mistress Quickly and throws in a few choice words of her own, the distinction was barely noticeable.
Single gender Shakespeare productions, especially those set in the modern day , always run the risk of seemingly contrived, but Lloyd’s production brought out the emotional heart of the play while losing nothing of its original intensity.
For tickets and more information visit www.donmarwarehouse.com.