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Chilly, guilt-ridden and impossible to please: Harriet Walter as the King in "Henry IV" (photo: Helen Maybanks)

Take a gender-bending Shakespeare treatment, set it in a women's prison, sprinkle with street slang and it sounds like a muddle of political correctness. Fears mounted as we trooped into the Donmar for Phyllida Lloyd's Henry IV and were barked at to take our seats by surly staff who turned out to be acting the role of prison wardens. What is it about immersive drama and prisons? I am now on my fourth "let's pretend we're in chokey" outing, and it is about three too many.

Thankfully, Lloyd, while reliably Spartist in her view of masculinity (bad) and capitalism (worse), is one of Britain's most versatile directors. She gave us Brünnhilde as a suicide bomber in the Ring Cycle and directed the annoyingly irresistible screen version of Mamma Mia!. Asked why she casts women in men's parts, she reckons that there simply aren't enough good female ones in Shakespeare and it is high time the dames have a crack at plum roles such as Julius Caesar (her first adaptation for the Donmar) and now Henry IV. It is a tribute to this confidence that we settle in pretty quickly with a female Falstaff (Ashley McGuire from Man Down), as a gormless, greedy, affectionate lush and Clare Dunne's nervy Hal as a needy principal boy, waiting for his big moment with a mixture of denial, anxiety and entitlement.

Language and context are messed around a good deal but the updatings are deft and snort-aloud funny. When Falstaff has overdone the Eastcheap carousing, he dives not into another slurp of sack, but a messy mound of cocaine. Jade Anouka, a Royal Shakespeare Company stalwart, shines as Hotspur, leading the tough Percys, who are cast as disciplined, gym-going street fighters who disdain the physical and moral laxity of Hal's posse. Fights are furious, with Brechtian techniques of boxing rings and masks aplenty. Amid the slapstick are nagging hints that Hal and Falstaff's bond cannot survive Hal's royal destiny. When Falstaff uses the moment of role-reversal to plead with Hal to "cast him not off", it prophesies disappointment, even as the merriment recommences.

As the king, a noble, aquiline Harriet Walter is chilly, guilt-ridden and impossible to please. The compression to which Lloyd subjects the play squeezes out some pathos of the king's decline, which romps along at a pace more suited to an episode of Casualty. Lloyd seems to have forgotten halfway through the production that her players started out in the clink and what that means for what follows. At the height of a riveting brawl, the guards come on to break up the characters. But why then and to what end? No idea, guv — and I doubted anyone in the cast knew either. But forgive this lapse because if you want to see a fresh, irreverent take on the Henry and Hal family soap opera, the Donmar's version is short, rude and full of vigour.

Over at the Playhouse Theatre, we get a contrasting take on the role of women on stage in David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow, with the appearance of Lindsay Lohan as the talking point. Ms Lohan is an actress who could have taught the Donmar feminists a thing or two about prison, having had more drink-and-drug-fuelled misadventures than all the members of the Rat Pack combined. In a peculiar act of penance, she has been dispatched to the London stage.

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