What's it about?
Shakespeare's Henry IV - in a women's prison.
What'd I experience?
I probably should have worn something nicer. My workout clothes (disclaimer: I didn't actually go to the gym) didn’t really go with the snazzy vibe of the new St. Ann’s Warehouse. Dumbo clearly got some work done - last time I was there it was still an empty little corner, now it’s vibrant and rich with new scenery. Also, it served as quite the contrast to the world I was about to be thrown into.
Before even stepping foot into the theatre space the show has begun. All I could hear was breathing as the inmates are brought through the lobby area with some pretty legit looking officers.
This sh*ts gonna be good.
The entrance was as badass as the set was. Everyone is escorted into a confined area within a cage - it felt like walking into a prison courtyard from Orange is the New Black. The area is divided into 4 blocks, all with the focus toward the performance area. I can’t really see anyone complaining about seating - but this is New York City so I’m sure someone was.
It quickly becomes apparent that this is one of those immersive experiences. I kinda freaked out when I realized that there was no intermission in this 2 hour long production, but I can confidently say I didn't think of leaving my seat for a second.
Hearing those gates close gave me chills. This wasn’t because of the 47 degree weather, but more so the kind of chills I get when something good is about to go down. Just as I turned to look at the exits - make sure I knew where to run toward just in case - the lights went out and Jay-Z came on.
His song. Not him. I repeat Jay-Z was not on stage. That would be crazy.
The women are brought in a straight line through the main entrance. Adorned in all gray sweat suits, greasy hair, and bare faces. Each carrying child-sized chairs and tables that they scattered around stage. This probably sounds as confusing as it first looked to me, but the one thing that really stuck with me was the attention to detail. The interpretations will obviously vary, but for me the child-sized furniture and props just added to this fantasy world that suddenly appears once the guards leave.
An awesome aspect of this production is the fact that I didn’t have to study Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Some of the language is altered to throw some jabs at sexism. The most memorable of moments (apart from every monologue Dame Harriet Walter had) were the character breaks that happened at random. There is no denying that Shakespeare’s writing often had verses that highlighted the lack of respect toward women - sadly not much has changed - and they are often used in a comedic context. Not here.
Phyllida Lloyd (the director) cleverly took a huge section of sexist text that degraded and insulted women and turned into a PSA. Every time I was taken out of King Henry's world it had a specific intention behind it. A women abruptly runs off stage (no longer in character) to then be escorted back onstage by some officers. There is a small anecdote about the actress having asked the production to exclude the explicit text, because it made her uncomfortable. It was as funny as it was empowering.
I have never seen a live production of Shakespeare's Henry IV done more traditionally, but to me Dame Harriet Walter is Henry IV. She made me feel her desperation. The same desperation I imagine an inmate would have when faced with the opportunity to be free. A few (meticulously chosen) times we see small cracks of the real world - the prison. It's not the clothes or the props that made me remember these women are prisoners, but those moments that kept me in check. As much as I am enraptured by their world, I get to walk out a free woman. I think actually holding myself back from being fully immersed allowed me to will gain more. It felt like visiting a relative in jail. You visit and chat some, but then you get to leave while they are left behind metal bars.
Part of me was unsure of my initial assumption of importance of having the backdrop be a women's prison. Fortunately, the day (who says Friday the 13th is an unlucky day?) they were hosting a talk back after the performance. It was awesome having the director herself reassure me - and 50 other people - that I am allowed to take the story as I wish. Phyllida Lloyd (the director) said that every character break hadn't been planned until the cast got into rehearsals. Once they began studying the text they realized the opportunity they had to give their perspective - as women - about the sexist nature of Shakespeare's writing.
It was comforting to know that I am allowed to see this story as I wish. So I have. I think a group of women in a female prison decide to perform Henry IV as a farewell to a beloved inmate. I know this sound ridiculous, but I think my theory holds up until the very end. A young women (aka the Prince) is being released, but for an older women (Falstaff, the Prince's companion) who has grown to love her finds it hard to be happy about the release.
I am ripped away from the fantasy world and into reality with a harsh screech from an inmate who can't bare to say goodbye to someone who has essentially become a daughter to her. And who better to be the actor then a female prisoner that knows the pain of having family taken away from them.