It’s as if the Donmar Warehouse can do no wrong. The place churns out hit after hit, and I’m not just talking about commercial successes – for rarely is there an empty seat in the house – but work of the highest artistic standards: work that raises the bar and really makes a difference.
Phyllida Lloyd’s Henry IV without a doubt upholds these standards. The play is gripping from start to finish, with a perfect balance of reverence for Shakespeare’s words and Lloyd’s own fresh and bold ideas, bringing new meaning to this compelling story of loyalty, rebellion and bloodshed.
In the same vein as her 2012 Julius Caesar, Lloyd has set her Henry IV in a women’s prison, creating a framework for the play whereby inmates stage it themselves with whatever means they have. This breeds a huge deal of creativity, as against the stark backdrop of the pared-back auditorium, with the comfortable chairs and the distinction between seating and stage gone, the cast can truly bring vivid colour and life to the play with no need for pomp or gimmick – only the words.
Clean Break, the Kentish Town-based theatre company that brings theatre to women in prisons, work with women at risk of offending, and rehabilitate those who have offended by offering workshops and a safe place, has offered their expertise to the production. In addition, many of their talented graduates join the accomplished cast (which includes Dame Harriet Walter as a formidable King Henry) making the work all the richer.
The production is undoubtedly brilliant. While Shakespeare’s plays are staged again and again, it is any director’s task to find new ways of telling his stories: new ideas and new meaning in the text that can give us pause for thought about our own lives. And Lloyd has, without question, accomplished this whilst also creating something thoroughly entertaining.
However, what detracts from the work – from both of Lloyd’s productions, in fact – is the constant and singular focus by critics and the media alike on their having an all-female cast. And yes, the irony is not lost on me that I too am bringing this into my critique, but do so only in order to articulate my rejection of it. Indeed, the tiresome chorus of “can they” and “should they” and “does it work?” ignores the complexities of what is without question, a great play – a play that has wonderful characters, a brilliant story, that resonates with contemporary society, and, bigger than that, asks what it is to be human. Furthermore, it undermines the work of the creative team and cast who are undeniably skilled practitioners, irrespective of what reproductive organs they happened to have won in the genetic lottery. In fact, it’s downright insulting.
It seems that the assumption when women make work is that it has to be about being women. Women are always viewed through the prism of their sexuality and how their womanliness affects how they are in the world. The result is usually restrictive paradigms that we see over and over again, which do nothing but perpetuate harmful stereotypes and once again highlight how women are marginalised and underserved, both in the theatrical landscape and society at large.
Moreover, when they’re asked about the work, they’ll be asked about what it felt like to be a woman making work – one only has to refer to my feature on the RSC’s Midsummer Mischief to see more examples. Rarely is what women are really saying being heard: we are too blinded and shocked, it seems, by the idea that they’ve said something at all. And it seems men are never so narrowly pigeon-holed, either on stage or off.
What makes this production of Henry IV so interesting, and so vital, is that being a woman has everything and nothing to do with it. I was seeing the characters that these women were playing, with more intensity and truth because it isn’t clouded by machismo; I was being asked to overlook the mechanics – who the actors are, what they are wearing (the costumes are simply prison uniforms) to really see what they were doing. I was watching people – yes, I say this because the production highlights to me that women are rarely treated as such. It brings home the idea that the men in plays always get to speak for humankind, and women only ever on how they reflect on their sex and where they sit on the sexual scale: mother, virgin, whore.
And so this is all to say, ignore those who judge this production’s success on whether the women – the poor, misguided darlings – can do it or not, whether it makes sense or not, whether its feminist enough or not. Go and see this play because it is great – because the cast is great and because the production is great, because some great people made it. That is the bottom line.
Henry IV is playing at the Donmar Warehouse until 29 November. For more information and tickets, see the Donmar Warehouse website.