British actors have a ritual — or at least Ian McKellen does, because I saw him do it once — of blessing a new stage by kissing it. (He then recited a Shakespearean monologue, but that part’s optional.) The British actors inaugurating the marvelous new Dumbo home of St. Ann’s Warehouse, which opened this month with a production of Henry IV, do something different. As playgoers mingle convivially in the expansive waterfront lobby, enjoying hand-roasted coffee from Bar Jolie along with the industrial concrete-and-plywood décor, guards part the crowd to make room for a charm bracelet of 12 women convicts to enter the theater en route to lockup. They are the cast.
Or so the director, Phyllida Lloyd, would have it. As in her previous Shakespeare-behind-bars sensation, Julius Caesar (also imported from London’s Donmar Warehouse), all the roles in the new production are actually roles within roles: women playing inmates playing Henry, Hal, Falstaff, and the rest. And though the conceit is carried out in numerous ways, some of which border on kitsch — tickets indicate your seat location by “block” — it is more than just a gimmick. One worthy part of the idea is to open great roles to those traditionally banned from them, to which end the cast is not only reversed in gender from the original all-male Elizabethan stagings but is also ethnically diverse. So far, so good; the acting, where permitted to be so, is thrillingly successful. But insofar as the production is also a serious attempt to see what new meanings and colors a female perspective, and a prisoner’s perspective, might uncover in the material, it is hampered by a countervailing tone I can only describe as cutesy.
To begin with, recall that a play called Henry IV doesn’t really exist; what’s presented here is a much-shortened Henry IV, Part One with a tiny tail of Part Two tacked on. (Part Two, written later, is a problematic sequel in any case.) The aim of this rejiggering is evidently to make a satisfying one-installment arc from the chaotic architecture (and frequent digression) of the originals. Lloyd thus presents the story of dissolute Prince Hal, heir to the throne of Henry IV, not just up to his transfiguration in battle with Hotspur (where Part One ends) but all the way through to the famous scene from Part Two in which, newly crowned upon his father’s death, he renounces his former associates for good. Though a welcome and well-done edit, if a bit of a long sit at two hours and 15 minutes without intermission, this has the side effect of highlighting, even more than usual, the lowlife high jinks of Falstaff, Poins, Peto, Bardolph, and the other Eastcheap rowdies, for whom the intoxication of choice is now crack as well as the traditional ale.
We are evidently meant to understand that this substitution, along with many others, was conjured by the prisoners themselves; working on the play, they sought ways to “relate” to it in contemporary terms. Same with the props and costumes: the shabby bathrobes in place of royal ermines, the tin-can crown and Toblerone scepters, Mistress Quickly’s toy plastic kitchen. For the same reason, a steel-drum player and DJ with turntables provide apt interpolations of contemporary music — if contemporary still includes the Beatles’ “Money (That’s What I Want)” — and the battle scenes are conducted either at arm’s length or with obviously fake weapons. (That last is a nice touch, highlighting a natural intersection of prison and theater life.) But for all their aptness, these substitutions call less attention to the supposed ingenuity of the “prisoners” than to that of the director and designers, a problem exacerbated by the thin and at times incomprehensibly muddy backstory. I’m not referring to the peculiar gallimaufry of accents; if Hal, improbably, sounds like a Scot, and Northumberland like a telenovela Don, we understand that’s because the prisoners playing the roles are themselves a diverse lot and haven’t studied received pronunciation at RADA. But we don’t know enough else about them to support anything larger. When at two climactic moments their cellblock lives break through the text — the first involves misogynistic language that upsets one of the actors — it feels as if Hal’s tale has been jackknifed by a story intersecting it at right angles.
If this is an indulgence — remember, Lloyd also directed Mamma Mia! — it is also a shame. The underlying idea suits the material at least as much as it did Julius Caesar. Instead of getting conspirators and assassins we have in Hal a wastrel trying to mend his ways; in Falstaff we have a scoundrel, unable to do so. Who better than prisoners to tell a story about rehabilitation and recidivism? And yet by overdoing the concept, the production undermines it. Happily, the reverse is true as well: Lloyd does very little to draw attention to the all-female casting, which triumphs as a result. To begin with, you couldn’t ask for a craggier, more commanding Henry than Harriet Walter. (With minimal makeup and slicked-back hair, she looks like Bryan Cranston, who might also be good in the role.) As Hal and Hotspur, Clare Dunne and Jade Anouka are well-matched foils, Anouka particularly electric with her flame-tipped fade. And the Falstaff of Sophie Stanton is unusually comic, and then unusually sad, in a way that has nothing to do with her being a woman.
Or does it? Until we see much more gender-blind casting it’s hard to say. I hope and assume we will, if not perhaps always in prison garb. (Orange is not the only black.) The challenge is good not only for actors, who rarely get the kind of stretch Shakespeare offers, but also for audiences, who presumably can be trusted at this point to handle the enfolded ironies of a woman as Lady Percy embracing, and then mourning, a woman as her Hotspur. It’s not as if plays this old and entrenched can’t survive the repurposing — on the evidence so far, I’d say they even thrive. In any case, after all, what’s a glorious new theater for?
Henry IV is at St. Ann’s Warehouse through December 6.