By Alyssa Luong
The waiting crowd is hushed at 7:24 p.m. under the dim lights and high ceilings of Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse on a windy night in early November. A man in a security uniform bellows for us to step aside, “Inmates coming through! Please step aside.” Furrowed eyebrows are relaxed and smiles slowly appear when we realize it is part of the show. We hear the jangling of metal chains and see the imprisoned women all in uniform grey sweatshirts and sweatpants, with their eyes looking indifferently at the people who’ve come to see their production.
Donmar Warehouse and St. Ann’s Warehouse presents the American Premiere of William Shakespeare’s Henry IV in the context of a women’s prison, directed by Phyllida Lloyd. The all-female cast initially feels like a gimmick in response to the history of all-male Shakespearean casts, but soon becomes irrelevant as the inmates begin Part I among children’s kitchen toys and tiny chairs and tables. It almost feel voyeuristic, watching upon playful props and sleepwear robes-turned royal. “Perhaps this is too personal for us to see?,” I thought.
The prison setting proves effective as we see how the roles are played, inferring that the inmates may be true representations of their characters. The most commanding performance comes from Harriet Walter, who plays King Henry. Her presence brings a simple, unwavering intensity.
Another burst of energy comes from Jade Anouka, who plays Hotspur, living up to the nature of his name. The overall atmosphere is well-balanced, taking us through comic relief delivered by Falstaff, played by Sophie Stanton, and Clare Dunne with a crescendo of development as the maturing heir, Hal, to King Henry.
The ensemble is led through a musical cover of Glasvegas’ “Daddy’s Gone,” led by Lady Percy, played by Sharon Rooney. It’s a delicate aspect of the play that offers a light melody, dueling with the rebellion and national conflict.
Lloyd succeeds in weaving the prison backdrop through the play, exposing the layers of the story with an abrupt incident when the Hostess, played by Zainab Hasan, runs off the stage in response to offensive language that has been directed at her. The lights came on and the prison guards came out, reminding us of the setting. Then, at the end, when Hal is crowned King, an uproar develops that triggers alarms and the guards emerge to end the play.
This strong cast with bold performances make the play worth experiencing. It’s a stimulating layering of stories in which we have privy.
Henry IV runs through December 6, 2015
Runtime: 2 hours 15 minutes
St. Ann’s Warehouse, 45 Water Street, Brooklyn