Director Phyllida Lloyd's inspiration for her all-women Shakespeare productions -- first Julius Caesar and now Henry IV, both at St. Ann's Warehouse -- wasn't simply to have her actors perform a William Shakespeare play but to have them appear as prison inmates putting on a William Shakespeare play.
The advantage is that the one remove not only lifts whatever onus there is to women playing men's roles. It also allows for women playing women playing men's roles to get extra mileage from exaggerating masculine mannerisms.
More than that, it means that inmates coming from various backgrounds get to use their own accents, which in the instance of Henry IV Parts I and II -- here conflated into one intermissionless two-hours-plus piece -- works a charm where the Bard's territorial references are involved.
In the just-opened new St. Ann's Warehouse space, Henry IV is played in the round -- or, more accurately, in the square. Into it the "inmates" are marched by guards and immediately begin the play. Just to remind patrons that these are inmates -- not that their prison garb isn't a constant reminder -- something happens throughout the action that has the players reverting to themselves and their personal differences.
The sudden and quickly contained breaks only begin to account for the production's heightened theatricality. Director Lloyd and set designer Bunny Christie with Ellen Nabarro employ only furnishings and props available in a prison. Knives are wielded, but other battlefield staples -- such as armor -- are missing. When Prince Hal (Clare Dunne) and Hotspur (Jade Anouka) finally confront each other at Agincourt, theirs is a free-form boxing match. (Hotspur has previously given a beating to a punching bag and executed chin-ups on a handy bar.)
As to other props: For a scene or two, a stuffed dog sits on stage, and occasionally one of the characters pets and caresses it. Somehow what could register as too cute comes across as charmingly grounded in everyday reality.
The major triumph of this triumphant undertaking is Lloyd's work with the actors. Harriet Walter, in the title role as usurping King Henry, proves she's not only a first-rate Shakespearean in female roles (her Cleopatra opposite Patrick Stewart in that tragedy a few years back may be the sexiest I've ever seen). She's also a first-rate Shakespearean actor in men's roles. (Apparently, Lloyd and Walter are planning a third in this series. I'm plugging for King Lear.)
Her straight hair brushed back and cropped at the neck and the profile severe, Walters has immense authority. When she speaks about a king's inability to find sleep when even the poorest subject slumbers easily, the man's anxiety is palpable. Even more so does Walters establish the king's guilt over having rid the kingdom of Richard II. In the exceedingly moving father-son death scene played with Dunne's remorseful Prince Hal, she's heart-breaking.
Dunne makes the transition from Hal's youthful follies in bawdy Cheapside to warrior and responsible new monarch entirely persuasive. She's expertly aided by Sophie Stanton's Falstaff, whose speech about the evanescent value of honor is a high point. The sequence at the house Mistress Quickly (Zainab Hasan) runs, where Falstaff and Hal switch roles pretending to be Henry IV confronting Hal, is as funny as can be. Everyone is the cast helps turn this take on the two plays into a treatment to remember.
By the way, Lloyd's Henry IV has an additional subliminal message of great significance currently. Watching these faux inmates helps substantiate the idea that introducing the arts into prisons is an invaluable benefit. It substantiates the message sent in Sherie René Scott's recent Whorl Inside a Loop. Is this a trend? Let's hope it doesn't pass unheeded.
Theater lovers devoted to Shakespeare's histories are lucky these weeks for the opportunity to follow (or precede) the truncated but nicely shaped Henry IV with, on screens in many locales, the Royal Shakespeare Company's Henry V. (For cinema listings and bookings visit http://onscreen.rsc.org.uk/.) Certainly on the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, this and Lloyd's Henry IV are nice anniversary presents.
As far as Henry V goes, appearing now as part of RSC artistic director Gregory Doran's run-through of the entire canon, it's right up there with everything he and associates have taken on so far. Thanks to set and costumer Stephen Brimson Lewis's sets and costumes, it's as gorgeous as a play about king and country can be. The armor alone is dazzling.
And for an opus that can be trotted out wherever it might be effective at rousing needed patriot feelings, the drama comes replete with clever notions. During the opening scene where new King Henry (Alex Hassell) is mocked by the French with a set of tennis balls, the box in which the tennis balls arrive must be watched. And that's only the first of many innovations Doran introduces. Others include a wonderful twist on Henry's exchange of gloves with the insulting solder he meets during his pre-Agincourt visit to the field.
Hassell's Henry is an accomplishment. Usually, Henry is presented as a fully finished prince. Here, he's a smart young man undergoing on-the-job training. He's a fast learner but right up to his St. Crispin's Day speech on Friday, October 25, 1415 he's still acclimating himself to his duties. It's then in this take, however, when he becomes the man who prevails on the battlefield the next day. Courting the French princess Katherine (Jennifer Kirby) in his broken French, he reverts to a schoolboy with knotted tongue.
An underlying Henry V theme is something of a theater meta-theme: It stresses the need for imagination when watching on a stage events as large as those covering the 15th-century English invasion of France. Oliver Ford Davies as the Chorus -- "O, for a muse of fire," he begins his rallying cry -- threads through the action in contemporary dress with a red scarf casually draped around his neck, as if he's a history professor lecturing on his day off.
The advantage of HD performances is the close-up, and this videoed performance is a stunning example of that. It's not the next best thing to seeing the performance in a theater. It's a different thing. Nothing beats live theater, but something as well done as this comes mighty close.