Harriet Walter 'Mad' Frankie Fraser
When Phyllida Lloyd staged Julius Caesar at the Donmar two years ago, reinventing the play by placing it in a women's prison, I welcomed the absence of hard-faced warders ordering the audience around. For her new production, she's opted to include the warders. The theatre now has big signs saying HM PRISON and warning visitors of dire consequences if they misbehave. I am now losing track of the number of times I have come across this particular device in the theatre; it's original when first experienced, but can turn into a cliche, particularly with promenade and site-specific shows.
Happily, what counts is not whether the audience believe they are in a real prison, but whether the actors make it credible. And in Henry IV, they really do. Lloyd has kept much the same team that succeeded with Julius Caesar, including designer Bunny Christie. Harriet Walter (Brutus) now plays Henry IV and Clare Dunne (Mark Antony) is Prince Hal. Cush Jumbo and Jenny Jules are no longer there, and neither is Frances Barber, but the ensemble has gained some terrific performers in their place. Jade Anouka sizzles as a high-voltage Hotspur, while Ashley McGuire is excellent as a slobbish Falstaff.
Lloyd's text condenses Shakespeare's two parts of Henry IV into a text of just two hours by concentrating on the first play, using only the two final scenes of the second. This means that the victory over the rebels and the death of Hotspur are followed closely by the death of the elderly king and Hal's rejection of Falstaff, which closes the play.
The prison setting means harsh lighting, steel structures, clanging metal, and incongruous kindergarten furniture and toys. Violence happens with boxing gloves and even a pricked red balloon. Nowhere are people more infantilised than in prison, so the improbable design idiom is right on target. The tavern scenes involve furtive exchanges of wraps of drugs between characters who seem to have breezed in off one of London's worst housing estates. Anouka's vigorous kick-boxing Hotspur is well matched by Ann Ogbomo as Worcester and Cynthia Erivo, who plays Poins and Douglas. Harriet Walter has her hair slicked backwards and under the pitiless lighting she seems the image of an elderly gangster on the downward slope, perhaps one of the Kray Brothers or 'Mad' Frankie Fraser.
In Julius Caesar I felt there were moments when the prison theme began to distort Shakespeare's play, with too much emphasis placed on developing Frances Barber's status as a petty dictator ruling the roost over her fellow inmates. In Henry IV we only briefly glimpse the prisoner-actors as themselves, in short instants when they lose control over their emotions. At the end, when the new king rejects Falstaff, Ashley McGuire's character loses it completely and has to be forcibly restrained by warders. I thought that was a marvellous way to bring the play to a climax.
This production is a tribute not just to the cast and creative team, but to the infinite malleability of Shakespeare. His plays are all about metaphor and ambiguity, and the realisation that the distance between being a king and being a prisoner is very slight.
I now realise that, as with Julius Caesar, I haven't written anything about the fact that this is an all-female cast. To be honest, I barely noticed. The actors ooze testosterone and suppressed violence; they are female, but not feminine. There is very little tenderness in prison, and only the hardest survive.