After her bold reimagining of ‘Julius Caesar’, Phillida Lloyd returns to the Donmar Warehouse and she’s in fighting form. Henry IVshows her returning to the tried and tested concept and the play is presented to us as a performance by inmates of a women’s prison. We enter the Donmar through the fire escape, climbing stairs as guards bark orders at us before emerging in the grey world of the prison where, under a harsh white fluorescent light, we take our (plastic and really uncomfortable) seats.
The all-female cast work wonders with such a male-dominated play: their butch prison system mannerisms flesh out the parts that require masculinity while their gender offers fascinating new insights into the play. The casting is incredibly empowering, and seeing such an incredible and diverse group of real women do Shakespeare their way is truly refreshing. It’s hard to pick favourites from such a powerful cast but Jade Anouka’s athletic livewire Hotspur, Clare Dunne’s Hal and Harriet Walker’s commanding performance as the King with a crown made of Irn-Bru cans are exceptional.
Henry IV isn’t flawless – Lloyd’s prison setting isn’t quite the perfect fit and truncating two parts of the Henriad into just two hours was never going to be easy. There is only really time for the bare bones of the play but we still leave with a sense of both Part I and Part II of Henry IV, which is a success in itself, and swapping historical court politics out in favour of the comedy and war-like aggression of the original is ideal for this production. The cuts make Henry IV totally Falstaff-centric but there are no complaints here, as Ashley McGuire’s Cockney stamp on the lecherous old gourmand is an utter joy to watch.
Self-aware, assertive and rebellious, Henry IV is a challenging and unmissable piece. The action culminates in a boxing match where the pressures of the prison hierarchy are brutally felt. It is in the latter moments of the play, with such poignant parallels between the power struggles of a prison and those of a nation, that Lloyd’s vision works best. It is in these moments that Henry IV is a sucker punch to the London theatre scene. Pulsing with energy, it bobs and weaves, delivering punches of dominant violence with one clenched fist and palpable vulnerability with the other. Another half an hour or so and it would have been a knock-out but Henry IV is still absolutely sensational.