Donmar Warehouse (King’s Cross Theatre North)
This was the third part in a trilogy of Shakespeare plays, not obviously thematically linked as plays but performed in a consistent manner – with an all-female cast headed by Harriet Walter and a linking framing device that all the plays are being performed by a group of female prisoners. The first part was Julius Caesar. The second part was Henry IV.
So this play, slightly more than the others, was the Harriet Walter show – in that she played Prospero, the undoubted lead (and yes I l know she was Henry IV in Henry IV but I’ve already talked about how he isn’t really the lead). She gave us Hannah’s story – getaway driver for a politically-motivated bank robbery in which two guards died, given 75 years without a chance of parole*. What an obvious parallel with Prospero, who does after all live in a cell on his island.
I’m going to stop and say something a little controversial here – which is that I am not sure I like The Tempest much. Yes, I am sure the fault is in me, but it seemed to very have very little plot held together with a lot of flummery – I think it shows more than other late plays** the influence of the Court Masque. That’s not to say it doesn’t have a large number of cracking speeches and a powerful central story – just that it doesn’t feel as meaty as many of his other plays.
Of course, given the way the other plays have been stripped down it matters less for this production, and still gives space for some genuinely great music by Joan Armatrading. Especially “Full fathom five”. The set felt more purposefully built than the others – Prospero’s cell bounded by strings of plastic, washed-up flotsam (and some subtle nods back to the previous plays – I am sure I saw a creepy-doll’s arm somewhere in there), a dream scene involving very large balloons***. There was also more (and more purposeful) bleeding of the prison and the play – not only was Prospero’s cell clearly also Hannah’s, but the washed-up princes and dukes found themselves put in a prison much the same as the one their prisoner-actors were in.
Jade Anouka’s Ariel was a most spritely sprite – dashing to and fro and full of merriment. If I had one minor quibble it would be in the layering – surely her prisoner-actor would chafe more obviously at Ariel’s confinement? Sheila Atim was great as Ferdinand –and being able to contrast so immediately her Lady Percy with Ferdinand really shone a light onto how well the actors had inhabited male roles**** – owning the space, falling out of female ways of walking. Another way in which the stark prison costumes helped the cast rather than hindered them.
Leah Harvey was a fun, open and utterly charming Miranda – so unlike her creepy soothsayer! Jackie Clune and Karen Dunbar were great as the comic relief of Stefano and Trinculo – especially the stuffed boxer shorts… Sophie Stanton’s Caliban was sly and stupid – you felt he deserved his incarceration although I know that’s an interpretation that can be argued about these days.
Harriet Walter was an austere Prospero – watching much of the action unseen by the other players, there was a sense of remoteness, of being outside the travails of the rest of humanity. He seemed frightened by the prospect of returning to the outside world, almost to the point of not making the journey. There was such a strong affection for Miranda, and for Ariel, it was hard to bear – and I cried when he forgave his brother.
The final speech dissolved into Hannah, listening as all of the other prisoners thanked her and said goodbye, stuck in her cell as they returned to the outside world. I cried again.
And that is to me the incredible strength of this production – each show manages to tell two stories simultaneously. It would have been ground-breaking enough to have produced all-women Shakespeare productions of the calibre of these three. But Phyllida Lloyd and Harriet Walter didn’t stop there. They created multi-layered, deep and textured shows where the Shakespeare and the prison illuminate each other – a drama greater than the sum of its parts.
I have seen nothing like it before. I feel incredibly lucky to have witnessed it.
* The story is based on that of Judy Clark who is in just such a situation in New York.
** Like Cymbeline and it’s superfluity of storylines…
*** Spoiler alert: I was hit in the face by a piece of flying rubber at the end of that scene. Should have kept it as a souvenir!
**** This was further enhanced when Ferdinand briefly pretended to be woman, all girly sashaying, and clearly not the same woman that Lady Percy was. Also how fabulously meta is a woman playing a woman playing a man playing a woman? Gotta love it.