Here’s a theory: Shakespeare’s plays are hard enough for a modern audience to understand that we will forgive most misguided aspects of a production so long as we are made to feel something.
I was conflicted in the wake of seeing Donmar Warehouse’s production of Henry IV at St. Ann’s Warehouse. The high-voltage, astoundingly performed, technically sharp production was seductive. I was predisposed to love it – an all-female production of Henry IV set in a women’s prison? Directed by Phyllida Lloyd? Yes please. But it fell just short of my expectations conceptually. Is it okay to have an ultimately positive feeling about a production with some glaring problems? I decided to shut off my inner theater cynic and say yes.
Here is what I forgave:
- The drastic cut made me wish I were more familiar with the play. This is really an abridged combination of Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2, condensed to a super-charged, two-hour and fifteen-minute with no-intermission sprint. While I will never complain about cutting Shakespeare and while this edit was quite smart, it takes a bit of time to hit its stride after barreling through an outline of exposition. In simplest terms, the cast were all wearing uniform grey sweats & hoodies at the beginning – throughout the play some articles are stripped or added— and in the initial burst of activity, I didn’t always understand what was going on.
- The framing device was implemented problematically. The house lights remain up as the play begins with the cast entering single-file, led and tailed by prison guards. They utter something about starting a play and we quickly understand that this is an inmate-led performance of Henry IV, permitted and observed by the powers that be. At various points, though, I wondered whether we weren’t creeping too close to this simply being a production of Henry IV set in a prison. It feels unlikely that in Lloyd’s directing of the play she just occasionally decided that she didn’t care for the framing devise she’d set up – but sometimes it seemed that way. I think either version of carrying out the prison concept works, but the production would have benefitted from a clear choice. As an audience member, I felt like I was doing too much math: why do the guards intervene when an inmate becomes upset by the scene she’s in, but not later during a knife fight? Why would they manhandle an inmate for unruly behavior, but later allow one (happened to be Falstaff, which was hilarious) to go into the audience and lead an audience member (happened to be me, which was horrifying) on to the stage for a gag?
- I was possibly most interested in two fleeting dramatic moments that were not in Shakespeare’s play at all. In the first, Falstaff and company mock a tavern hostess, but then go off script with vulgar, misogynistic insults that cause her to break into tears. She objects that it wasn’t a part of the play and that they’d agreed not to do that part and she storms offstage. I nearly stood up and followed her I was so intrigued. Then, in the last moments of the play as Hal denounces Falstaff, the actor playing Falstaff panics and there is an eruption of activity – the inmate playing Falstaff charges the inmate playing Hal, the inmate playing Henry IV protects the inmate playing Hal, and the guards shut the whole thing down. The lights came back up, leaving us in our cement block of a theater, feeling perhaps like we didn’t get the whole story, or that the story we came to see was not the one happening in front of us at all.
I forgave it all, as it was happening and after, because I felt:
- Excited. The last time I saw Henry IV, it was in a forest and I fell asleep on the ground. This time, I leaned forward in my seat the entire time. There was so much electricity, so much subtle tension that never saw the light of day, and some very cool design choices (at one point, in the absence of a physical map, inmates spray-paint a stage-wide replica on the ground – a delicious moment of stage magic). The fight scenes were some of the best I’ve ever seen and, in most of them, the actors didn’t even touch each other.
- Real empathy towards characters I’ve always seen as irresponsible and power-hungry. Was this because they were all excellent actors? Definitely. Was it because they were all women? I have to wonder. I suspect that every male actor has imagined himself—because he entered into his profession with the proclivity to do so—as one of Shakespeare’s kings. Since he was a young student actor, broadening his shoulders to play Macbeth or deepening his voice to play Lear in an acting class, he has shaped a mold into which he will one day, when his hair is grey enough, fit. So when he finally had the chance to assume such a role, there is a bit of posture-fulfillment. I doubt that Harriet Walter, a searing King Henry, nor Clare Dunne, a swaggering Hal, have thought for too many years about playing those roles. They are so entirely not the molds of a traditional King Henry or Hal, and the benefits are huge.
- An appreciation for the female body on stage. It might be impossible to un-gender a body on stage and this production doesn’t try to. These actors are un-camouflaged women. There is almost nothing more unfortunate than when actors, male or female, overcorrect their body language in cross-dressed roles. This production was almost entirely devoid of that nasty habit, save light use of that “I’m pretending I have a penis” trope: the pelvic thrust (although so far as I know, men don’t practice the pelvic thrust nearly as much in real life as women playing men on stage do, but I digress). I’ve played Viola enough times (which is once) to remember having my body language examined in a rehearsal room in order that the director might strip me of my femininity (“Take bigger steps,” “Broaden your shoulders,” “Stick out your chest. But…not too much.”). It eventually seemed insignificant that all of these male characters had women’s bodies, which was a beautiful thing.
- Hints of liberation – which is of course ironic considering the show’s setting. That said, the production was infused with a reaching, a kicking-open-of-doors. Within the play, the prisoners were free to express themselves by putting on characters and thrashing about inside of them. Within the comprehensively strong cast, twelve incredible female actors were free to soar in roles previously off-limits to them. And in the audience, we explored the possibility that we were free to see this play, so often such a severe and antiquated endeavor, as something much more palpable, something of our world.