Phyllida Lloyd imagines the Lancastrian king reigning over a women's prison.
Recidivism is on the rise in Brooklyn: Just two years after getting out of director Phyllida Lloyd's brilliant women's prison-themed production of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, audiences at St. Ann's Warehouse are back in the slammer with the British director's Henry IV. A truncated mashup of two Shakespeare plays (Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2), it once again features an all-female cast posing as inmates. This time the result is less successful, in part because of a less rigorous application of the conceit, but also because St. Ann's sparkling new facility on the Brooklyn waterfront doesn't as easily lend itself to a prison atmosphere, despite high fences encircling the stage and a somewhat onerous seating process (we're always aware of the plush bar and lounge awaiting us on the other side). Still, the cast gives Shakespeare's timeless story a rigorous-telling fair shake, chock-full of great performances.
Just a few years after usurping the throne from the hapless Richard II, King Henry IV (Harriet Walter), faces rebellion from his lords, led by the young and ambitious Hotspur (Jade Anouka). "He hath more worthy interest to the state / Than thou the shadow of succession," the king bitterly tells his playboy son, Hal (Clare Dunne). While Hotspur unites English Northumberland (Carolina Valdés), Welsh Glendower (Jackie Clune), and Scotch Douglas (Susan Wokoma) against the King, Hal fritters away his time watching football and doing lines of coke with fat slob John Falstaff (Sophie Stanton). The competing forces clash at Shrewsbury, a battle that will determine Hal's worthiness to succeed his father.
Staged in the round, the production is essentially a well-edited version of Part 1 with the tail end of Part 2 tacked on. There's no Prince John or Doll Tearsheet, just a sickly king in bed, relinquishing his crown to an ascendant Henry V. This turns out to be a wise choice as Part 2 was never as thrilling as Part 1. Also, the audience has about reached its limit at the Battle of Shrewsbury, which takes two hours (sans intermission) to arrive: As with Caesar, Lloyd's decision to restrict our bathroom privileges remains the production's most viscerally powerful choice.
Unfortunately, Lloyd's women's-prison setting is not nearly as illuminating here as it was in was with Caesar. Guards (neatly costumed by Deborah Andrews) stand watch on all sides of the stage, but are rarely used in the action of the play. One would think that this story of a top dog, challenged for supremacy on several fronts, would have a special resonance in an environment as tenuous as prison. Instead, it feels more like a fashionable package in the age of Orange Is the New Black. Prison politics rarely bleed into Shakespeare's tale, and when they do, it comes as comic relief, like when Falstaff sabotages Hal's promise to his father. More effectively, Bunny Christie and Ellen Nabarro craft a set out of found objects and Fisher Price-molded plastic toys, suggesting the daily indignities that these adult women turn into art through their incredibly sophisticated performances.
That's the good news: The acting really is stellar. Anouka brings a scrappy resilience to Hotspur, a shock of red hair betraying her fiery temperament. Stanton is hilarious as Falstaff, causing the audience to lean in whenever she takes the stage. Walter's performance is typically revelatory. Shakespeare's verse rarely feels as alive as it does on her tongue. This is an excellent opportunity to see top-notch actors perform a classic Shakespearean history. But if you're expecting it to say something insightful about the prison-industrial complex, you're in for a disappointment.