Clare Dunne (Prince-Hal) and Harriet Walter (Henry IV) Photo: Helen Maybanks

Review by Carol Rocamora

“Places, ladies”!

That’s the customary call when a stage manager readies actors for an entrance, right?  Not in this version of Henry IV!  In Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female 2016 production (now streaming on-line), it’s a prison guard calling her female inmates to prepare for their performance of Shakespeare’s great history play. 

The Donmar Warehouse’s landmark Shakespearean trilogy – Julius Caesar (2013), Henry IV (2016), and The Tempest (2017) – has ignited audiences on both sides of the Atlantic (in London and at St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York) with its daring and its originality. First: in all three productions, the ensemble is all-female, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, starring Harriet Walter.  Second: the director has set her productions in a women’s prison, with the inmates performing the series of plays.  This unique metatheatrical combination produces an explosive experience unlike any you’ve seen.

As is the ritual in these unconventional productions (taped at the Donmar Warehouse’s King’s Cross in London), we first see the ensemble as prisoners, being led along a concrete path into a locked facility – which turns out to be a bare, arena-shaped theatre (designed by Bunny Christie with Ellen Nabarro).   The players enter, dressed in sweats (costumes by Deborah Andrews), carrying various furniture pieces and props.  Once in place, actress Clare Dunne (who will play Prince Hal, Henry’s son) offers a startling meta-theatrical introduction.  “My name is Rosie Malone,” she says, “I’m a crack and heroin addict, I’ve been in and out of prison since I’ve been 14,” she declares.  “This is a play about change, about reformation, about people with troubled pasts and uncertain futures – who wouldn’t want a second chance?”  And then the play begins. 

Jade Anouka (Hotspur) – Photo Pavel Antonov

Set in the early 15th century, in a time of a fierce civil war, Henry IV is a story of a divided country, power-struggles, and the burden of leadership – themes that resonate sharply in our own troubled times.  “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines, is articulated by a brilliant Harriet Walter, as the conflicted, beleaguered king, beset upon by shifting rivals and betrayals all around him, yet determined to keep that crown that is also a curse.  Henry IV is a also a play about fathers and sons – Henry as the father of the rebellious Prince Hal (Clare Dunne), who cavorts in taverns with the ne’er-do-well Falstaff (Sophie Stanton), a larger-than-life comedic creation and Prince Hal’s other father figure.  The play is ultimately Prince Hal’s coming-of-age story, as he matures into a loyal, responsible son and joins Henry’s fight against his challenger, Hotspur (Jade Anouka).

Sophie Stanton (Falstaff) – Photo: Helen Maybanks

Henry IV is a challenging play to direct, with its shifting tones between comedy and tragedy.  Director Phyllida Lloyd triumphs over these challenges, offering a fast-paced two-hours filled with variation and surprise.  The music varies from harp solos to rock bands to folk music to piped-in segments of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”  There are adlibs and interruptions – when, for example, guards are called in to break up the fist fights between actresses.  There are calisthenics and acrobatics, bursts of prison alarms, and a spectacular battle scene at the end staged by Kate Waters.   There are also hilarious touches – like a toy car and a teddy bear used as props, actresses sucking on lollipops during scenes, Falstaff wearing a chair for a hat, and so on.  

As Henry, Harriet Walter sets an unmatchable standard in how to speak Shakespearean prose.  Clare Dunne is a sympathetic Prince Hal, and Jade Anouka is charismatic as the hotheaded Hotspur.  As Falstaff, the colorful Sophie Stanton gives one of the most moving and convincing speeches ever written about the folly of war and the flawed concept of honor:  “Can honor set a leg? No.  Or an arm? No.  Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honor hath no kill in surgery, then? No. What is honor?  A word. What is in that word, honor?  Air.”

Shakespeare’s Henry IV, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, a Donmar Warehouse Production now streaming on St. Ann’s Warehouse website through October 22.