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Review: The Donmar Warehouse's all female Henry IV (parts 1 and 2)

Harriet Walters is Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse

If you saw the all-female Julius Caesar at the Donmar two years ago, the setting of this abridged version of Henry IV parts 1 and 2 will be familiar to you: a women's prison. And I must confess I was a little bit disappointed when I heard it was to be the same device (why does the all female cast have to be explained?)

The plastic chairs, stark lighting and functional institution-style set and props are back. In order to make this a more immersive experience, the audience is asked to gather at a cocktail bar down the road before being directed to an unglamourous side entrance where staff dressed as prison guards direct you to your seats.

Brash and bold in style and tone - just like Julius Caesar - the genius of this particular production is in the use of popular songs and music and also in the cast. It feels a bit impolite to say but they look normal, like an everyday bunch of women who just happen to have taken a path down the wrong side of the law. The grey baggy track suits help, it is size, shape, haircuts and ethnicity that are the distinguishing features. The personalities and attitudes of the characters shine through released from the shackles of formal costume and 'courtly' behaviour.

Harriet Walters plays a no nonsense king, she reminded me a little of Marlon Brando in the Godfather with her slightly set jaw and low gravely tone.

Her son, Prince Hal (Claire Dunn), is Irish and the leader of the rebellion, the hot-headed Harry ‘Hotspur’ Percy (Jade Anouka) is a small but tough and moves like she could take care of herself on a dark night in less salubrious London suburb.

There are Scottish, Yorkshire and Afro-Caribbean accents in the mix too giving Shakespeare’s words an earthiness. And it is delivered with a fresh clarity and comprehension – it is some of the best I’ve heard.

The two plays have been condensed down into a swift and pacey two hours straight through and not once did it feel like there were any great omissions, in fact there is one scene that could have been cut shorter without harm.

This is certainly the year for use of music and songs in plays and this production is peppered with popular and classical tunes, often delivered with tongue firmly in cheek. For example, at the beginning when we are introduced to Prince Hal and those he is hanging out with, Falstaff (a fantastic Ashley McGuire) and friends burst into a rendition of Pulp’s Common People which felt like it was written for that scene.

This production feels fresh, contemporary and exciting. Anouka’s Hotspur is particularly inspired hot-headed yes but with a passion you admire so that the deception played on him feels almost like a tragic betrayal. It is a stark contrast to the RSC’s production I saw earlier this year when it felt more like an excuse to get rid of an annoyance.

The final battle between Hotspur and Hal is a boxing match that turns nasty. It doesn't have the brutality of the murder in Julius Caesar but it was convincing. It reminded me of the fight between Laertes and Hamlet in the Hiraeth Production earlier this year which, coincidentally, was also set in a prison.

There are occasional nods to the women's incarcration, when the prisoners come out of the Shakespearean characters, usually to fight about an unscripted line, and I’m not sure it adds that much. It would have been nice to have seen an all female production that didn't feel like it had to explain why there were no male actors. Maxine Peake is playing Hamlet in Manchester at the moment with no reference to her being the opposite sex. But, there is still plenty to enjoy and admire about this production.

I hope the Donmar decide to go out on a high with this rather than milk the prison concept once again.

Henry IV runs at the Donmar Warehouse until Nov 29