BACK TO PRISON: WOMEN WIN THE HOLLOW CROWN
This is epic and intimate, mischievous and macho, truthful and painful and bleak. A two-hour condensation of the Henry IV plays, set in the grim neon-lit gym of a women’s prison, is the second in Phyllida Lloyd’s trilogy of all-woman Shakespeares, in collaboration with the prison arts company Clean Break. Their Julius Caesar, I wrote last year, was one of those rare theatre moments when you feel that something genuinely important has happened: a seismic shift in the possible. Harriet Walter’s Brutus shook off every preconception about gender onstage, for good.
I was not relying on Lloyd pulling off the same shock again. Bunny Christie’s original set, finessed by Ellen Nabarro (andI have seen drama in enough prison gyms to vouch for it’s authenticity) is familiar. So are the unsmiling warders ushering us in, and the motley cast of “inmates” in grey tracksuits and scraped-back hair. At first, Clare Dunne’s Irish-accented Hal failed to convince me, though I was rapidly drawn in by the gaunt commanding presence of Harriet Walter as the eponymous King, guilt-haunted Bolingbroke in a crown made of Irn-Bru cans, and by Jade Anouka as a superfit, gym-honed passionate Hotspur beating hell out of a punchbag. But we needed to know that this most macho of the History plays could, by being transposed from 15c monarchy to a women’s jail, show us something new.
It can. It did. What Lloyd achieves, with respect for the verse and a series of feinting, elegant scenic overlaps, is a breathtaking double vision. These are women sometimes wholly being men, sometimes implying that they are women damaged by life, slyly aping male swagger and aggression. Ashley McGuire’s Falstaff is a delight: part natural-born market-stall virago, part cross-dressing parody; always carrying that quicksliver burden of wasted intelligence in Falstaff which fuels that essentially womanly speech despising male “honour” for its inability to heal wounds of war. McGuire does this alone under the pitiless searchlight, and achieves a seriousness as great as Roger Allam’s marvellous treatment of the part at the Globe.
Amother double vision flickers throughout: prisoners of circumstance and their own fallibilities, the cast’s status as inmates remind us of what Shakespeare compassionately knew – that Kings and princes, drunkards and whoremongers, like all of us, are prisoners of circumstance too: guilty anxious Henry, rebellious Hal doomed to change beneath the ‘polished perturbation’ of the crown, impulsive loyal avenging Hotspur, Falstaff in his prison of flesh and flippancy. Just as we forget they are playing prison inmates doing a play, twice quite shockingly they get too involved and the lights go up as warders rush in to break it up. Once it happens when the sexual taunting of Mistress Quickly becomes modern and explicit, and she screams with sudden real womanly revulsion “We agreed we weren’t going to do this fucking bit!”. And once again at the end, when Falstaff’s rejection meets a violent response, warders intervene as we see inmates mastered and wounded by the power of the tale they have enacted. As we all should be.
But the core moments of the play are straight, unambiguous and fine. Harriet Walter, once again, achieves depth and reality to match any of her great predecessors in the role: androgynous, gaunt, thoughtful, troubled, “Myself, mighty and to be feared”. Dunne’s Hal grows in stature, their deathbed scene together superb. Other moments startle with their virtuosity: Ann Ogbomo’s passionate Worcester, Cynthia Erivo’s mischievous Poins. It’s tremendous, a brick in theatre history. I hope they auction off the terrifying paper masks of Walters’ face which her troops wear in the battle. I’ll be bidding.