It is disconcerting to see armed guards march a line of prisoners through the elegant lobby of St. Ann’s Warehouse’s glorious new space. It is even more so to enter the playing space and realize that you are stepping into a wire-mesh cage. Set in a women’s prison, this all-female production of “Henry IV,” directed by Phyllida Lloyd, combines Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part I” and “Part 2” into a taut story about masculine power.
The prison setting, with the actors playing prisoners who are themselves enacting a play, is reflected in the stripped-down design; all the locations are uncomfortable spaces like the gym or children’s playroom. The minimal staging focuses attention on the performances, all fierce and hungry for redemption, for vengeance, and for control. An aura of barely suppressed violence seeps out of the actors and raises the tension: most of Shakespeare’s characters here, like the prisoners, are warriors or con artists. The relations of dominance and deference among the prisoners parallel the noble (and ignoble) characters in a double vision that echoes the play’s themes of power, loyalty, and honor.
The piece crosses the fall of one king with the rise of another: Henry IV, rallying his newly united nation, faces a rebellion among his former allies. His forces defeat them on the battlefield, yet his demise is inevitable. His son, Hal (Henry V), begins as a wastrel, carousing with criminals in taverns, yet will cast off his bad reputation to become king.
All the performances are striking and intricate, but a few particularly stand out. Harriet Walter’s Henry IV oozes steel — a warrior king scarred by the path to the crown but never allowing a moment’s uncertainty. Walter — older than the rest of the cast — holds palpable authority over her fellow inmates; even the bathrobe and gilt-paper crown she wears shine with power. Clare Dunne’s Prince Hal is a born schemer, constantly spinning strategies to win people over, and even in combat, she shows calculation as well as violent purpose. And Jade Anouka’s Hotspur is all temper: a war hero who is briefly heir to the throne, but with the flaw of impulsiveness. Anouka pairs this mercurial nature with a dark thread of violence. Each strives for the ultimate prize — the throne — by different methods that underscore the complex dynamics of power.
“Henry IV” at St. Ann’s Warehouse [45 Water St. between New Dock and Old Dock streets in Dumbo, (718) 834–8794, www.stann