You come in via the back door. In this sort-of sequel to her all-female Julius Caesar at the Donmar, Phyllida Lloyd has retained the women’s prison setting. This extends to the way you enter the space. Having collected your tickets from a bar across the street the audience are made to file in up the back stairs while being brusquely instructed by ushers dressed as prison guards to turn our phones off or risk having them confiscated. Inside the lighting is stark and unforgiving, while the seating in the lower part of the theatre has been replaced with equally unforgiving grey plastic chairs. There are institutional posters on the walls and a few more guards dotted around the space. It’s the same flirting-with-immersive approach the Young Vic took to their Hamlet, but once the play proper begins there’s no further interaction.
The two parts of Henry IV have been whittled down to a taut two hours, the pace rarely flagging, the energy considerable, and as with Lloyd’s Julius Caesar there’s a framing device, the inmates performing a play within a play, which allows for a handful of moments when the performers drop out of ‘character’, mainly to swear or scrap with one another.
As a result there are times when there’s a sense that the underlying relationships between the women are being echoed in their onstage dynamics, though this isn’t explored all that much as an idea – we are never shown who these women are and what they mean to one another beyond the world of the play – it does, however, add a shading to certain exchanges, most notably when Ashley McGuire’s Falstaff makes a fart noise at the end of one of Harriet Walters’ most kingly speeches and Walters shoots her a stern reprimanding look.
And Walters is brilliantly kingly. There’s something majestic about her whole demeanour, contemplative, intelligent, quietly commanding, even in a shapeless grey tracksuit, a ratty dressing gown and a crown made of old Cola cans (As a result of having watched too much Oz at an impressionable age I was a bit worried about the presence of all this jagged metal, but most of the violence is dance-like, stylised and shank-free – until the last ragged battle between Hal and Hotspur).
In fact dance and music are central to Lloyd’s production; the whole thing is permeated with this idea that music has the power to lift people out of restrictive environments, to transport, to liberate. The cold grey brick of the back wall is frequently filled with light, star dappled, as the performers slide into song. Sharon Rooney’s Lady Percy has a particularly affecting moment, a gentle, lilting lament.
This is, let’s be clear, an inventive and exciting production, but as beautifully done as so much of it was, I couldn’t help feel that it tries to explain itself too much, to find ways of accounting for the fact that all these women are together on stage, instead of just revelling in it – because it is a thing worth revelling in. But I began to feel as if there was something almost apologetic in the prison setting. Both this and Julius Caesar have been produced in collaboration with Clean Break, a theatre company which works with women in the prison system, and this is great and commendable – and, yes, there’s a also logic to the institutional setting, in terms of the power play and the shifting allegiances and the absence of men. They definitely make the case for choosing this path, part of me just wishes – especially since this is the second time around for the concept – they didn’t feel the need to justify and contextualise the casting in this way – because, regardless of setting, the cast are amazing.
Alongside Walters, Jade Anouka’s Hotspur is a fucking force, with her red wedge of hair; she has this deliciously rangy, rolling performance style, light footed and limber, and – as her performance in Sabrina Mahfouz’s Chef showed – she has a strong poetic sense, there’s a musicality to her delivery. Cynthia Erivo is similarly physical in her performance, if more compact and contained. Like Kenard in The Wire, she’s tiny but you wouldn’t want to cross her. McGuire’s Falstaff is a wonderfully rumbling presence, using her superficial joviality as both a shield and a weapon, while Clare Dunne’s Hal is fiery but smart, clearly playing the long game
All that said, the rivalries and divisions – the Oz-like tribalism that only seems to surface towards the end – don’t feel all that well developed and it’s the tender moments that linger longest, like Rooney and Anouka’s embrace; their reluctance to let each other go.
And there’s something fascinating and timely about the ways in which the production prods at gender identity and its construction. The prison setting is part of this I guess – the shaved heads, the undercuts, the make-up free faces, the tracksuits and gym gear. Androgyny in various guises is part of the aesthetic – Walters’ face, as Henry, looks a little bit like Jeremy Irons crossed with Marlow Moss – which calls the attention to the weight our society places on women continuing to look feminine as they age. But she is never de-sexed by this, nor is there any ‘man-acting’, rather she and the rest of the cast get to probe the interplay between their masculine and feminine traits in ways not often given room to in the mainstream. Strength is a part of this. Because these women are strong. Really bloody strong. There’s this brilliant sequence in which Anouka, Erivo and Ann Ogbomo’s Worcester do a seemingly effortless series of acrobatic chin lifts and push ups and it’s such a pleasure to watch, this focus on women’s strength – physical as well as emotional – this display of power, untethered as it is to the cat-suits and slink of comic books or the acceptable athleticism of the sports world.
So it comes as a bit of a slap when the house-lights snap on at the end and the prison guards come back in to break up the performance. It feels like a reassertion of something that was thrillingly absent during the course of the play.