In Shakespeare’s two Henry IV plays, England is a small place riven by big wars: battles over turf and honor by cliques of violent men. The historical personalities are obscure now, but the conflicts are not: fights for money, power, and respect.
Given this pressure-cooker atmosphere, English director Phyllida Lloyd’s decision to stage her radically slimmed-down Henry IV — now visiting St. Ann’s Warehouse from London’s Donmar Warehouse — in a women’s prison makes sense. Call it Orange Is the New Bard. The play’s brutal politics are at home there — one of the few surviving pockets of violent honor culture. And watching an all-female cast embody hormonal machismo exposes the dangerous peacocking and presents it for critique. (We’re reminded, when the inmates’ performance collapses during some too-enthusiastic slut-shaming, that glorifications of war and casual misogyny go hand in hand.)
Clad in sneakers and sweats, speaking in hard-edged London accents, the diverse ensemble melds the plays’ medieval warrior society with those of latter-day descendants: gangs, soccer hooligans, yobs. Harriet Walter’s haunted King Henry is an eagle-eyed capo, collecting tribute in the yard; Jade Anouka makes an incandescent Hotspur; Clare Dunne renders Prince Hal as a strutting bruv with hidden depths; and Sophie Stanton’s Falstaff is a sly treat, the best portrayal of the part I’ve seen. Let’s hope Lloyd tackles Henry V next.
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
St. Ann’s Warehouse
45 Water Street, Brooklyn