Dame Harriet Walter as King Henry IV by Helen Maybanks
The idea of an all-woman Henry IV (now playing at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre, London) didn’t much grab me. I gave a miss to the same company’s Julius Caesar and have to confess that I didn’t bother to read the reviews, even when it transferred to New York. But then the press night invitation for Henry IV arrived, and I had a rethink. After all, the original cast was all-male, and nobody has any problem with the occasional all-male productions of Shakespeare today, so why not all-female casts?
Only minutes into Phyllida Lloyd’s 2-hour redaction of both Parts I and II, I had to admit to myself that I was not really aware of the gender of the actors in the centre of the auditorium. This might have been because there was a great variety of body types, from the tall, gaunt King Henry of the great Harriet Walter to the robust girth of Ashley McGuire’s superb Falstaff, the willowy Hal of Clare Dunne, the tiny powerhouse of Jade Anouka’s Hotspur, or the frankly fat Lady Percy of Sharon Rooney.
Or it might have been because, like the Julius Caesar, the play was framed by setting in a women’s prison. Though there was not a great deal of consistency about the framing action – that is, it wasn’t clear whether what we were witnessing was an amateur production of Henry IV taking place in a prison – it did mean that the audience wasn’t bothered either by the absence of men or by female actors taking male roles.
There was another striking factor, though: with its contemporary dress (designed by Deborah Andrews) and minimalist nursery school furniture (designed by Ellen Nabarro, though Bunny Christie is credited with “Original Designs”), the spectator was forced to use his own imagination (and memories of reading the plays and of other productions) to fill in the attributes of the characters. I relished this, and was quickly able to see the bullish Ms McGuire as Shakespeare’s tub of lard, sack-swilling knight.
Ms Lloyd has done a wonderful job reducing the two plays to one, and providing the odd off-script transition. A programme note fills you in on the tradition of condensing the texts, and this version feels perfectly suited to its purpose, which is a collaboration between the Donmar and the Clean Break Company, founded in 1979 in HMP Askham Grange by two women prisoners. Its mission is to produce “groundbreaking plays with women theatre artists at the heart of its work. Some of the Henry IV cast are Clean Break students, and Dame Harriet Walter and Phyllida Lloyd a big supporters of the company. I hope this exciting, well conceived staging gets seen more widely, perhaps even in the West End.