Shakespearean Gender Bender

Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Henry IV was not the politically correct muddle it might so easily have been

Theatre
Chilly, guilt-ridden and impossible to please: Harriet Walter as the King in "Henry IV" (photo: Helen Maybanks)

Take a gender-bending Shakespeare treatment, set it in a women’s prison, sprinkle with street slang and it sounds like a muddle of political correctness. Fears mounted as we trooped into the Donmar for Phyllida Lloyd’s Henry IV and were barked at to take our seats by surly staff who turned out to be acting the role of prison wardens. What is it about immersive drama and prisons? I am now on my fourth “let’s pretend we’re in chokey” outing, and it is about three too many.

Thankfully, Lloyd, while reliably Spartist in her view of masculinity (bad) and capitalism (worse), is one of Britain’s most versatile directors. She gave us Brünnhilde as a suicide bomber in the Ring Cycle and directed the annoyingly irresistible screen version of Mamma Mia!. Asked why she casts women in men’s parts, she reckons that there simply aren’t enough good female ones in Shakespeare and it is high time the dames have a crack at plum roles such as Julius Caesar (her first adaptation for the Donmar) and now Henry IV. It is a tribute to this confidence that we settle in pretty quickly with a female Falstaff (Ashley McGuire from Man Down), as a gormless, greedy, affectionate lush and Clare Dunne’s nervy Hal as a needy principal boy, waiting for his big moment with a mixture of denial, anxiety and entitlement.

Language and context are messed around a good deal but the updatings are deft and snort-aloud funny. When Falstaff has overdone the Eastcheap carousing, he dives not into another slurp of sack, but a messy mound of cocaine. Jade Anouka, a Royal Shakespeare Company stalwart, shines as Hotspur, leading the tough Percys, who are cast as disciplined, gym-going street fighters who disdain the physical and moral laxity of Hal’s posse. Fights are furious, with Brechtian techniques of boxing rings and masks aplenty. Amid the slapstick are nagging hints that Hal and Falstaff’s bond cannot survive Hal’s royal destiny. When Falstaff uses the moment of role-reversal to plead with Hal to “cast him not off”, it prophesies disappointment, even as the merriment recommences.

As the king, a noble, aquiline Harriet Walter is chilly, guilt-ridden and impossible to please. The compression to which Lloyd subjects the play squeezes out some pathos of the king’s decline, which romps along at a pace more suited to an episode of Casualty. Lloyd seems to have forgotten halfway through the production that her players started out in the clink and what that means for what follows. At the height of a riveting brawl, the guards come on to break up the characters. But why then and to what end? No idea, guv — and I doubted anyone in the cast knew either. But forgive this lapse because if you want to see a fresh, irreverent take on the Henry and Hal family soap opera, the Donmar’s version is short, rude and full of vigour.

Over at the Playhouse Theatre, we get a contrasting take on the role of women on stage in David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, with the appearance of Lindsay Lohan as the talking point. Ms Lohan is an actress who could have taught the Donmar feminists a thing or two about prison, having had more drink-and-drug-fuelled misadventures than all the members of the Rat Pack combined. In a peculiar act of penance, she has been dispatched to the London stage.

It is a harsh sentence. For one thing, Speed-the-Plow is not so much vintage Mamet as a lukewarm brew of his notions about culture, masculinity and language with a few high notes. The yarn of two Hollywood studio moguls Bobby, played by Richard Schiff (The West Wing), and Charlie (Nigel Lindsay), agreeing to make a film which will restore Charlie’s fortunes and, after the intervention of Karen, Bobby’s opportunist temp, un-agreeing, is a sparse one.

In accomplished hands, it can still spark, as when Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum at the Old Vic went mano a mano with deadly brio, exuding the same kind of ruthless self-interest as the characters. In the Playhouse Theatre version, though, Schiff looks more like a displaced member of an Ivy league faculty than a street-wise LA wheeler-dealer. Lindsay works better as Charlie, a passive-aggressive thug with a real grievance. His was the only performance that hinted at the brilliance and darkness that marks the best of Mamet. The lovely Lohan disappointed disaster-seekers — with the exception of one slip on opening night she remembered her lines, even if credit was mainly due to Jimmy Choo for best-supporting stilettos. Did we believe that her character, trussed up in some odd, figure-exhibiting attire, would have the power to sway worldly Bobby after a single night of nookie? No, we did not. Seduction is not the same as persuasion. The job of studio bosses, as Charlie wearily reminds his best frenemy, is to give hungry audiences “the same film they saw last year”. This merely gave us the same Mamet as we have seen many times before, just without the malign zing that it needs.

For a far superior dose of Americana, head to Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s brilliant evocation of small-town life — and indeed all our lives. The Almeida’s version is a transfer from Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company with the actor-director David Cromer, who summarises in dry New England delivery the story of quotidian joys, woes, despairs and anxieties in Grover’s Corners, a backwater New Hampshire town, during the early years of the last century. The setting is as stark as a Shaker kitchen: actors mime their activities and no props figure until the final scene, when the ghost of Emily, the girl we have watched grow from teenager and bride, revisits the wonder and warmth of earthly existence from beyond the grave in a quiet coup de theatre.

Our Town is often misunderstood as a folksy homage to the era of Teddy Roosevelt. But Wilder understands the ambivalence that surrounds the stability of civic and family life. A brilliant, disturbing church scene explains rather too well why women cry at weddings and lost souls drift out of the bosom of their community.

Wilder’s genius lies in the fact that no scene, bar the ghostly one, sounds outstanding, but all of them move, amuse or discomfit us. Our Town‘s insights into the human condition have survived Fordism, the Great Depression, two world wars and an altered America. It is eternal — all the more reason to catch it in the Grover’s Corners of Islington before the end of November.