After her all-female “Julius Caesar” in 2012 set in a women’s prison — a production that launched an international tour that included a much-lauded stop in New York — director Phyllida Lloyd and actress Harriet Walter take us back to the slammer for a well-filleted “Henry IV” that’s wrapped up in two short hours. Seen through jailbirds’ eyes, Hotspur’s uprising against the king becomes a bitter turf war, in which capricious young men harden into bloody-minded rivals. It’s an insightful approach, with plenty of layers to gnaw through, and a setting that demands — and gets — gutsy performances. But there’s something presumptuous about speculating what women prisoners might make of Shakespeare, then speaking on their behalf.

This isn’t gender-blind casting per se. Lloyd’s actors aren’t playing men, they’re playing women playing men, and in watching them interpret Shakespeare’s characters, we get a glimpse of their worldview and, in particular, the way they see the opposite sex. It sheds light on machismo; both its sex appeal and its stubbornness shine through.

Walter’s Henry, in a dressing gown and a beercan crown, is stern and imperious, and Clare Dunne’s inmate, on the cusp of freedom herself, clearly sympathizes with Prince Hal’s flight into the scuzz of tavern-life. Her Hal is flinty and carefree, and, as Ashley McGuire’s cockney geezer of a Falstaff sings, just “wants to sleep with common people.” Jade Anouka’s Hotspur, meanwhile, becomes a hot-headed juvie, bouncing on his heels and mouthing off left, right and center.

Prioritizing Part I, Lloyd focuses on Hotspur’s rebellion. The two young men grow resolute in their causes. They stop joking and bind their hands, shadow boxing in preparation. You see shades of gang members climbing the ranks or new radicals growing staunch in their faith. Cynthia Erivo’s po-faced Earl of Douglas goes to work like a ninja, taking out an army single-handedly. Hal and Hotspur’s final face-off becomes a bare-knuckle box, thrillingly choreographed by Kate Waters. Sharon Rooney, making her stage debut as Hotspur’s wife Kate, rams home the tragedy of that: “For God’s sake,” she urges, “Go not to these wars.”

As the young men commit, so do the inmates. They’re larky and knockabout to start, undermining their play with stupid sound effects and even, on occasion, forcing the guards to intervene. That can be irritating: Top-notch pros faking am-dram mistakes comes off as effortful and patronizing. Sometimes those layers make it hard to just watch. There’s too much to take in at once, as play and prison compete.

Then Lloyd lets the second half grip. Driven by Dunne’s maturing Hal and a dazzling deathbed scene from Walter, this “Henry IV” finally engages the emotions. Only McGuire keeps breaking out, playing Falstaff like a club comic. “Take it seriously,” rasps Walter. Dunne — and her Hal — cut ties completely. Freedom, it seems, requires turning one’s back – just as coronation does.

It doesn’t all cohere — class, in particular, is raised and forgotten — and it never feels totally authentic in its prison setting, but Lloyd’s production is never, ever dull. If nothing else, it’s a real kick to see so many women act with such ferocity.

London Theater Review: ‘Henry IV’ in a Women’s Prison

Donmar Warehouse, London; 250 seats; £35, $56 top. Opened and reviewed Oct. 9, 2014. Running time: <strong>2 HOURS</strong>.

  • Production: A Donmar Warehouse production of a play in two acts by William Shakespeare.
  • Crew: Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Sets and costumes, Ellen Nabarro; lighting, Neil Austin; sound, Tom Gibbons; production stage manager, Anna Anderson.
  • Cast: Jade Anouka, Elizabeth Chan, Jackie Clune, Shiloh Coke, Karen Dunbar, Clare Dunne, Cynthia Erivo, Zainab Hasan, Jennifer Joseph, Ashley McGuire, Ann Ogbomo, Katie Robinson, Sharon Rooney, Harriet Walter.