There’s No Doubt, She’s Henry IV
St. Ann’s Warehouse
Waiting to enter the fantastic new St. Ann’s Warehouse for the Donmar Warehouse’s production of the all female super condensed and super intense Henry IV, we, the audience, are silenced in our pre-theatre chatter by the ‘prison guards’ leading the ‘prisoners’ through the crowd into the theatrical space awaiting us and them. We watch the almost dead-faced female inmates, heads bent down, walk slowly and solemnly into the cage. It’s a crowd stopping moment, and one that gives us no clue to what an exciting alive production we are about to witness. Bravo director Phyllida Lloyd.
These female prisoners, once given the freedom to carouse in the density of Shakespeare and the all too masculine universe of this royal history play, thrive. The inmates are lead into the middle of what appears to be a prison basketball court enclosed in a tall chain-link fence (kudos to the design team – Designer: Ellen Kabarro; spectacular-Lighting Designer: James Farncombe) patrolled by guards throughout. They carry in their play-school props and with the signal from the guards; they abruptly begin the Shakespearean performance within the prison performance. We get lost in the story even though they are all dressed, for the most part, in prison grey sweats with added on child-like props and kid costumes (very inventive-Costumes: Deborah Andrews). We are transported to a Shakespearian England rife with conflict. These woman become these testosterone-fueled men, be it solders, leaders, kings, or thieves. They fight and struggle and laugh with one another as only men can do, each trying to prove their courage, dominance, and cunning over the other.
This is a complicated story. One that Shakespeare used two plays to tell (Henry IV Part 1 & 2) but here it’s condensed into a one intermission-less 2 hours and 15 minutes. And what an intense ride it is. I must admit that I had wished I had read up a bit on the story line before the show, but after reading a short synopsis post performance, I realized that this production did an amazing job giving you the primal conflict and characterizations of Henry IV. I was a bit shocked what they accomplished and that I had followed it all.
In regards to the cast, it was powerful hearing all this talk of war, male bravado, and sexuality coming out of the mouths of these women. Harriet Walter as King Henry is a true powerhouse. There is no doubt she is in charge; the true authority figure in the room. I missed her as Brutus in Ms. Lloyd’s similarly done Julius Caesar (also presented by St. Ann’s last year via Donmar Warehouse) so I feel very blessed to see her inhabit this role with every molecule of her being. No wonder she adorns all the ads for this play.
Balancing off this intense struggle for power in this rebellious time in England, is the wayward son of Henry, Prince Hal (a perfect Clare Dunne) hanging out in the Tavern, drinking and snorting cocaine with thieves and liars, most deliciously and noteworthy, Falstaff (the amazingly funny and detailed Sophie Stanton). One of the most memorable scenes (besides the two imitating Hal’s father, King Henry) is one of the few when we are reminded we are watching actors play prisoners performing Shakespeare. Falstaff and company get carried away with their playful (?) insulting of one of the few female characters in this Shakespearian play, the tavern hostess (Zinab Hasan). They fall out of Shakespearian language and fall into modern misogynistic demeaning jokes, tearing into the hostess, making the prisoner actor breakdown and storm out crying. The prisoners must convince her to return, promising to return to Shakespeare. To me, this was a very deep and arresting moment, when female actors, as female prisoners, playing vulgar male characters succumbed to degrading a woman with sexual insults, in such a way that seemed compulsive. Very Meta, and very powerful. What this is saying about how women feel about other women deep down inside when they play-acting as vulgar mean-spirited men, I’ll let you dissect. But I’m guessing it’s not good.
And then there is Jade Anouka as the warrior/boxer Hotspur, a character filled with adrenaline and testosterone. Hotspur is angry and oppressed, powerless and frustrated (much like the inmate the actor is playing maybe feeling). But within Shakespeare, the resentment of the downtrodden can be manifested and released. The dangerous physical energy of this defiant family makes it impossible to remember that these were the same women who were marched through the lobby, yet it also makes us wonder what may lie beneath the surface. The hot-blooded eager-to-fight machismo oozes out of the pores of these prisoner actors (Kudos to Movement Director: Ann Yee; Fight Director; Kate Waters). You feel how their captivity is powering their acting, and it is pulsating to watch. Much like the last scene when another break from the Shakespeare occurs, when the violence and cruelty of power brings about banishment and dismissal. The prisoners explode, and the guards bring a quick end to the play. And these actors, spectacularly, return to the powerless and imprisoned women that we first saw file past us in the lobby.