A New ‘Henry IV’ Production Shows How Gender-Swapped Casting Can Keep Shakespeare Vital

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A lot of the discussion surrounding gender-swapped Shakespeare productions hinges on an idea of theatrical reparation. The idea isn’t just that these casting decisions make up for the Elizabethan refusal to let women play any part, but also that they address the dearth of substantial female roles in Shakespeare’s works (at least outside the comedies). People talk about revival/reboot culture in TV and film — but theater has functioned as a revival culture for centuries, and has proven both the innovations and the potential paralyses therein. In an art form predicated primarily on endless reconstitutions of the past, that not only cherishes its classics, but necessitates their constant rebirth, such changes have to be made if the theater wishes to explore and critique male-dominated pasts without perpetuating a male-dominated present.

But that’s only in regards to people involved in the productions themselves. For viewers, on top of the inherent — if perhaps more didactic — value of productions that gender swap and/or bend, this casting trend can and often does shed far more light on what the plays mean today, centered as they are in often tragic or radically unfair fates determined not by the “stars,” but by patriarchies. (This is especially true in Shakespeare’s history plays.) Any gender switching will automatically draw the audience’s attention to the forceful historical weight with which we’ve imbued gender constructs.

In the case of Donmar Warehouse and Phyllida Lloyd’s nearly all-women production of Henry IV (with both parts combined into one, shorter play), which runs through December 13 at Brooklyn’s new St. Ann’s Warehouse location, its divergence from tradition immediately guides focus to an abstract notion of masculinity as a role one can embody for the uses of war- and power-mongering. “There’s something about putting these fighting words into the mouths of women that makes us listen with newborn ears for the ring of absurdity and desperation within,” said Ben Brantley in his New York Times review.

This production knowingly sacrifices some of the dramatic weight of the original Shakespeare play for the weight of its own, added gendered framework’s commentary on the original. Like Phyllida Lloyd’s production of Julius Caesar before it, this Henry takes a meta-theatrical, Marat/Sade-istic approach, with the cast playing the inmates of a women’s prison who happen to be putting on Henry IV, while a smattering of near-nonverbal men play guards.

There’s no need to suspend your disbelief that prisoners would perform Shakespeare, though it may be harder to buy that they’d choose a less canonical history play. However, it is these more than any others that are the most male-dominated (there are a meager two roles for women in Henry IV), and thus it starts to become clear that these war-centric plays are perhaps the best equipped for masculinized power-posturing. The “prisoners” — led by veteran Shakespearean actress Harriet Walter — wield tin-can-constructed crowns and mimed guns, and furnish their castles with Fisher-Price. Brief breaks acknowledge that what we’re seeing is a performance from the prisoners, who are themselves performed by this troop of British actors. Through its humor of makeshift set decorations and its resistance to the audience’s total narrative immersion, the production awakens us to three different patriarchies at once: the theater world (in a survey of English theater, The Guardian noted from a sample that women account for 36 percent of artistic directors, 24 percent of production directors, and 38 percent of actors), the prison system, and England under the reign of Henry IV.

Henry IV actually follows the opportunistic rise of Hal (Henry IV’s son, who becomes Henry V at its close) more than Henry IV himself. He is, essentially, a 15th-century George W. Bush, who’s doing very little with his political responsibilities as the son of a ruler — preferring to hang with his cronies like the old, perpetually intoxicated and engorged (in every sense of the term) hedonist Falstaff — until he suddenly decides he’s going to end his wild-child streak and go into politics to please daddy. His narrative is coupled with his father’s anxiety — and eventual battle — over a rebellion being stirred by Henry Percy (or Hotspur) and his family.

Hal decides to get involved in the struggle against the burgeoning rebellion to ingratiate himself with the court. He crushes the insurgency by killing Hotspur, leading to the execution of Hal’s uncle. Interestingly, Shakespeare — at least judging by Henry V, known for its “Once more unto the breach” speech — seems to want to portray Henry V/Hal as a heroic leader. But the callousness with which the rebels are executed in this production (weirdly, by the time murders happen, we’ve come to see toy guns as real ones), coupled with Hal’s character’s initial political nonchalance, complicates his eventual heroism, to say the least. Hal’s “heroism” is further tainted by the fact that Hotspur (Jade Anouka) and his family are embodied by black prisoners in this production: the rebellion being quashed is thus tacitly evocative of racial oppression, rendering Hal even less symbolically worthy of veneration.

Mark Lawson at The Guardian once complained, in a piece griping about gender-swapped casting in Shakespeare, of a “tuning in” period for audiences adapting to cross-gender Shakespeare. But this play is aware of, and perhaps even relies on, our initial disorientation. The female prisoner characters are not rewriting the characters to be female — they are plunging fully into a patriarchal relic, forgetting their imprisoned lives within another patriarchy.

And so, too, do we slowly start to forget the prison setting, to finally treat this as, simply, a play — rather than a play within a play. It begins seeming less awkward that all of the characters are dressed mostly in gray prison uniforms, or that packaged candy bars commingle with ancient kings. The play takes on its own world, seeing these women rise within the violence and competition of the Shakespearean patriarchy.

It takes a long time to ensnare us this way; the concept, the lack of class-delineating garb, and the added characters playing characters make the plot harder to follow. But right when it does, at the end, it abruptly cuts off Henry IV. The sentimental finale, with Hal taking the crown from his dying father, is abridged when the prison’s fluorescent lights suddenly cast unbearable light on the whole theater — even the audience. The prison is abruptly put in lockdown, Henry IV-the-play stops, but the prison continues, and all of the women who’ve developed this meticulous power hierarchy/fantasy are rendered completely powerless and neutralized. Their characters fall away, their fictional pecking order is nullified. They are made to lay flat on their stomachs by guards, and then ushered from the theater by them.

It’s a disturbing display of how we’re forced, if we ever seek empowerment through a gendered rewrite of historical narratives, to continue imitating/reenacting/fantasizing about oppressive patriarchies. The play provides a setting that enables women to play these classic male roles, but with a keen awareness of the ontological traps of imitating a patriarchal past as a means of empowerment. As masculinity-as-a-concept is slipped on, performed as a power mechanism in a circus of violent competition, and then abruptly shed when the lights go up, the play elucidates the constructed nature of our confluence of maleness and violence, maleness and power — questioning why any of this would be a locus of desire for women or for men when it leads, as it does here, to cyclical acts of oppression.

It’s out of the question and inane to even think about disposing of history, or the great works of art that history has produced. But since theater is, itself, the one art whose very existence relies on a notion of narratives that are repeatable across time and space, it makes very little sense to never disturb those repetitions. This production shows that there’s no reason, after a text has existed for centuries and will surely exist for centuries longer, for anything in the original to be taken as gospel — especially a gospel that could be construed as speaking to the heroism of monarchs. Deliberate gender-play in contemporary Shakespeare productions can, clearly, be far more telling than acceding to the dictations of a play that was written 450 years ago. And it’s especially effective when it doesn’t merely gender-swap, but uses the conceit to question the very makeup of gender, and the ways the roles we create can permeate, and tyrannize, society.