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In the latest Coors Light Ice Bar cinema advertisement, Jean-Claude Van Damme slices through enormous ice blocks with his bare hands and shatters them with a single thrust of his legs. Perhaps it was because I saw the ad within 24 hours of Phyllida Lloyd’s extraordinary all-female production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, which ends its sell-out London run on 29 November, that the play struck me as an object lesson in masculinity for our times. The posturing Van Damme brought to my mind Jade Anouka’s Hotspur, whose raw verbal and physical energy on the stage turned each scene where she appeared into the frantic assertion of a masculinity heading for catastrophe with every thrust that it makes. Van Damme of course invites parody: there are several hilarious online remakes of the ad in which he straddles the widening gap between two reversing Volvo trucks while intoning ‘a body crafted to perfection, a pair of legs engineered to defy the laws of physics, a mind set to master the most epic of spaces’. Mostly, however, what characterises this version of manhood is that it is completely incapable of parodying, or even seeing, itself.

It was the genius of the women who played the parts of men at the Donmar that, as women, they were able to confront us with a masculinity aware of what is wrong at the very moment of performing itself to perfection. The Henry IV plays offer one of Shakespeare’s most searching analyses of the deadly male triumvirate of power, war, honour. But I have never before seen a production which conveys so effectively that these are the drugs men take to keep themselves in business. They talk of ‘all-abhorred war’, but they love it. Henry IV offers masculinity as self-combustion. In Hotspur’s words: ‘The mailed Mars shall on his altar sit/Up to the ears in blood. I am on fire.’ And Harriet Walter’s king – legs splayed as if on a bar stool rather than a throne – conveyed an authority which the whole world knows is fraudulent because it was founded on a crime (he deposed, imprisoned and some would say caused the death of his cousin Richard II, who had once been his playmate).

Caught between self-command and the most crushing self-doubt, Walter knew how to rise to this part and bring it down in the same breath. The king is wan with care and insomnia – he is guilty. He is also counterfeit; at the battle of Shrewsbury, he ‘has many marching in his coats’ so as to confound the enemy. When challenged, he therefore has to declare himself.

‘What art thou
That counterfeits the person of a king?’
‘The King himself.’

To this extent, Prince Hal’s profligacy can be read as the son throwing the father’s imposture back in his face. The Donmar production wasn’t ‘giving the lie’ to the idea that this is a masculine play, as one reviewer suggested, or shifting the emphasis to the ‘similarity between the sexes’. In two densely packed hours with no exit – the play was set in a women’s prison – we were up against what men so often are and what, by dint of that fact, they are prone to do to each other and to women.

In 1817, Mrs Elizabeth Inchbald pronounced: ‘This is a play which all men admire and which most women dislike.’ There is, in that sense, a beautiful irony in Lloyd’s choice of Henry IV as the second in her projected trilogy of all-female Shakespeare performances. Of Shakespeare’s ten history plays, Henry IV Part I is the one in which women speak the fewest lines (as with all mergings of the two Henry IV plays, the first part dominates this production). As a result the lines of the few women characters in the play acquire an added urgency. Two actors – Sharon Rooney for Lady Percy, and Zainab Hasan for Mistress Quickly – made their impressive stage debut here (also doubling as Gadshill and the Doctor respectively). When Lady Percy pleads in vain with Hotspur not to desert her, her children and their marriage bed, Rooney downplayed the pathos in favour of straight talk, leaving her husband nowhere to hide:

Come, come, you paraquito, answer me
Directly unto this question that I ask.
In faith, I’ll break thy little finger, Harry,
An if thou wilt not tell me all things true.

She also calls him ‘weasel’ and ‘ape’. Slinking off to war then appears as a form of evasive action, as cringing as it is brave.

In Henry IV, it is the women who speak the truth: ‘No, Sir John,’ Mistress Quickly says to Falstaff when he insists he knows she has been hostess to petty crime. ‘You do not know me, Sir John; I know you, Sir John.’ As with Lady Percy, it is the idea of women being in possession of the truth that is the affront. The ensuing crisis produced one of the most unsettling moments of this production. Falstaff responds with sexual insult; to Shakespeare’s bawdy and already offensive repertoire, the players added one or two even more vulgar barbs of their own. Whereupon Mistress Quickly rushed weeping from the stage – ‘We said we weren’t going to do that bit, we said we weren’t going to say those things’ – as if the actors had violated a prior ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ not to go too far. You do a double take before realising all this has been rehearsed. They then repeated the scene with the offending lines excised. Words damage. Lloyd and her cast were making a crucial – but by no means simple – feminist point. Only if we face, or even stage, the worst misogyny, thereby bearing perverse witness to its power, might there be the slightest chance for women to rewrite and efface the script.

By setting the play in a women’s prison, Lloyd adds a crucial gender dimension to past performances of the Henry plays such as the 1964 RSC production (part of a complete history cycle marking the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth), which took place on a set that looked like a stone and steel cage, described by co-director Peter Hall as a metaphor for ‘the mechanism of power’ at the core of the histories. I cannot describe how irritated – oppressed might be closer – I felt by the way the audience at the Donmar was held across the road until summoned and marched by steely-faced guards into the prison space of the auditorium for the performance to begin. It did not, however, take long for me to get it. The women cast were performing women prisoners putting on a production of Shakespeare in which men dominate and women are mostly dismissed as objects of contempt. They were being given back their agency, as each one became the raconteur and analyst of the world that had failed them. As Deborah Coles writes in the programme, for women the road to prison is most often lined with sexual and physical abuse, domestic violence, exploitation, homelessness, self-harm, educational disadvantage, racism, drug and alcoholic abuse (the list is endless). Eighty-three per cent of women prisoners are inside for non-violent crimes. The factor of racism is important. This must be one of the most ethnically varied casts – and with an array of Welsh, Scottish and Irish accents – ever to have performed on the London stage.

The reference to prisons was far more than a theatrical gesture. Coles is the director of INQUEST, which provides support for those who’ve been bereaved by a death in custody. The staff and residents of HMP Askham Grange are thanked in the programme. The theatre company Clean Break, founded in 1979 to perform the lives of two women inmates who needed their story to be told, is part of an educational collaboration with the Donmar (Harriet Walter is a patron of Clean Break). The prisoner playing the part of Lady Percy, we were given to understand, had a history of self-harm. When she exposed her damaged arm in the dispute with Hotspur, she was telling us (telling him) that violence is not confined to the battlefield. She was also, without an ounce of self-pity, turning a wound into a statement. If the lives of women are to improve, men must stop treating them as goods and chattel, but they must also stop killing each other.

Two moments in the original that did not make it into the final cut also give the strongest support to the prison setting: Falstaff conscripting his army of near corpses and prisoners, and the prostitute Doll Tearsheet carted off to prison. ‘She shall have whipping-cheer enough,’ the first Beadle announces (whipping was the recognised punishment for prostitution in Bridewell). When he hears of this, Falstaff vows: ‘I will deliver her.’ Instead, at the end it is Falstaff who is dragged off the stage by prison guards. He will be incarcerated with the prostitutes whom, if things had turned out differently, he would have set free. This was also the one moment when Ashley McGuire’s Falstaff dropped his guard and was unequivocally a woman prisoner.

For the rest of the play, McGuire’s Falstaff managed to be as dignified as he was base. We have never seen so much of Falstaff’s body before. Giving a woman’s body, whatever shape or size, such freedom to roam is a feminist statement in itself. McGuire would have stolen the show, as reviewers suggested she did, were she not so perfectly pitted against Clare Dunne’s lyrical, lilting Prince Hal, whose poise, even in a pub brawl, left the audience uncertain whether his final kingly transformation is necessary or for the best. In one of her most underplayed and effective moments, McGuire stood on the stage softly tearing the concept of honour to shreds. ‘Can honour set to a leg? Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No … Honour is a mere scutcheon. And so ends my catechism.’ By losing the bombast at which she had excelled up to this point, McGuire gave the speech special resonance. The question the production threw up was not only about the morality of Hal’s repudiation of Falstaff, on which many critics focus, but rather what price kingship, what price government, if it has to close its ears to the ‘wisdom [that] cries out in the streets’ (a question which has not gone away).

In the middle of Henry IV Part 2, the Archbishop of York makes the case against further rebellion on the grounds that friends are now so ensconced with enemies that there is no distinguishing between them. He explains:

So that this land, like an offensive wife
That hath enrag’d him on to offer strokes,
As he is striking holds his infant up,
And hangs resolv’d correction in the arm
That was uprear’d to execution.

Wife-beating, he is stating, is justified, and only halted in its tracks by a mother’s brute manipulation of her child (what mother, we might ask, would use her infant as a human shield?). The scene was not included in this production. But the sheer misogyny of these lines would persuade even the faint-hearted of the bloodline it ran from now to then, when the forms of sexual injustice and hatred of women it laid before us were as brazen and unapologetic as they still are today.

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