I admit that I’m one of what seems to be many who wish that Phyllida Lloyd didn’t think she needed a framing device to justify her all-female productions of Shakespeare– in 2012, Julius Caesar, and now her version of both parts of Henry IV follows suit in being set in a women’s prison, a play being put on by the prisoners. It leads to some moments that mimicking Caesar in ways I found jarring, including an almost identical third-act break from the play when the prisoner-actors go too far with a bullying joke, though it’s a different kind of violence than the actual beating of Cinna the Poet in Caesar

The stark, institutional lighting and prison rec room set (the Donmar Warehouse looks so much more convincingly like a prison than St. Ann’s, where I saw Caesar, managed to) make a certain element of lighthearted fun within the text impossible. The tavern where Prince Hal (Clare Dunne) and Falstaff (Ashley McGuire) spend their days feels as gritty, bleak, and downright nasty as the rest of the prison. McGuire, understated, is funny but never riotously hilarious, nor is Lloyd trying to make her be. 

But the blurred space between play and actor-playing-prisoner fits both plays equally well. I found myself imagining the Percys scheming in a cell block named “Wales,” picturing the form that King Henry’s (Harriet Walter, magnificent) usurpation must have taken. The political scenes all fit the frame nicely, and are about as clear and engaging as I have ever seen them. This is partly because the powerhouse actors are almost all in the rebel camp: Jade Anouka’s Hotspur and Ann Ogbomo’s Worcester are particularly tremendous. The uncle-nephew duo echo each other nicely, both passionate and physical, but Worcester weighed down by weary experience, the likes of which would sully Hotspur’s gleaming, irresistible purity, but might also save his life. She also may be the best Hotspur I’ve ever seen. 

Their political rivals are the two Harrys: King Henry, and Prince Hal, both of whom seem perfectly aware that they lack the rebels’ charisma and appeal. Walter’s King wears his power effortlessly in public, but the strain of his illegitimate claim and wayward son sometimes break through. Thanks to the nature of Lloyd’s cut, Dunne’s Hal is more reckless than most, and his famous first soliloquy reads as little more than hollow boasting, as do most of his promises of reformation. In most scenes, off-stage actors lurk on the sidelines, watching or just sitting, heads ducked. But whenever Hotspur is onstage, Dunne watches intently. 

There’s been so much said about the plain fact of the female ensemble, but it deserves saying. I want to remark on the diversity of the cast, which is even more extreme than I remember in Caesar, both racially and in terms of body type. As Jenji Kohan taught us, apparently the only way to get black, white, brown, fat, tall, women all in a story together is to put them in prison. But at least it’s being done. 

I realize that this post is comparably quite short. I find this production very difficult to talk about. I didn’t agree with all of its choices, but I left feeling like something had happened to me through watching it. And I agree so strongly with its political, artistic intentions, to talk about liking or not liking, enjoying or not enjoying feels too reductive. My enjoyment is beside the point– but I did enjoy it– but I also felt a little like I’d been hit with a brick afterwards– but that’s definitely a good thing. Much as I hate to use the dreaded A-word, I feel like somewhere inside my frustratingly tangled mix of responses is exactly what art is supposed to do. 

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