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All-Female Henry IV Takes Over at Donmar Warehouse

10/10/2014 11:01 BST | Updated 09/12/2014 10:59 GMT

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Shakespeare's Henry IV Parts I &II have been compressed and transformed into a two-hour prison drama with an all-female cast in this bold production at the Donmar Warehouse.

Prison Officers guard the entrance to the Donmar and they usher us in to a theatre space transformed into the stark, sterile interior of a women-only prison. Brutal and unforgiving overhead lighting glares over harsh metal landings and staircases. Even the audience benches in the stalls have been taken out and replaced with rows of utilitarian plastic chairs.

The prison bell buzzes loudly over the auditorium, the lights darken and our large cast of prisoners are paraded into this grim and worryingly truthful setting.

Given its themes of power rivalries, competing cliques and dynastic succession, Shakespeare's work is an interesting starting point to analyse life inside. And certainly the power politics of life in prison is superbly demonstrated in this radical production from Director Phyllida Lloyd, the second instalment in what will be a trilogy of works at the Donmar.

Harriet Walter shines as Henry IV, the reigning King frustrated as much by subterfuge and betrayal in her ranks as she is by the immaturity of her appointed successor Hal (played with real grit by Claire Dunne).

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Harriet Walter is incredible. Effortlessly cool in her demeanour and ruthless in her decisions, power rests so easily on her shoulder and she is a commanding presence on the stage.

As Henry, she battles to defeat the enemies that lie within and crush any rebellion with little support from Hal who has absconded his responsibilities for a life of revelry with the questionable companionship of charismatic prison clown Falstaff (Ashley McGuire giving a great comedic performance).

Some may (sadly) see the all-female cast as gimmicky but after the first few moments, it barely registered with me, so convincing were the performances. However, one thing I will say is that though the cast is excellent at the dramatic and exciting scenes, there is awkwardness across the board where emotional, even physical intimacy is required.

I think it's important that productions are prepared to challenge Shakespeare, re-interpreting it and making it relevant and exciting for modern audiences. With that in mind, I love the decision to transport this play to a prison. The setting is certainly evocative but the challenge with transporting Shakespeare to a profoundly different setting is always that, away from its more usual location, the text can seem nonsensical.

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For example, Hal's ambush of Falstaff's attempted robbery in a forest makes no sense in a prison as obviously, none of them can leave the building. Likewise, the carve-up of Britain between the competing clans seems odd. The adaptation requires a real suspension of disbelief but if you go with it, the production pays dividends.

For me, the greater challenge is in following the plot, especially if you are unfamiliar with the text. Two very long plays have been condensed into a sharp, energetic two hours. The pace is quick and rarely lets up. If you are unable to follow what's going on, you can get left behind very quickly.

And though compressed versions of this play have been around for a while, the unique location, the large cast (there are 14 actors in this production) and the very quick pace means that it's hard to place who everyone is in the context of the story and appreciate exactly the importance of everything taking place in front of you.

If you really know the text, this production of Henry IV fascinates. Its commentary on the challenges and concerns of life inside are necessary and relevant. But sadly if you're not completely au fait with the text, you might get a little lost.

Donmar Warehouse, London to November 29, 2014

Image Credits:

1. Ann Ogbomo (Worcester) and Harriet Walter (King Henry) - photo credit Helen Maybanks

2. Clare Dunne (Hal) - photo credit Helen Maybanks

3. Elizabeth Chan (Peto) Sharon Rooney (Gadshill) Ashley McGuire (Falstaff) Karen Dunbar (Bardolph) and Cynthia Erivo (The Earl of Douglas) - Helen May