Friday, 09 December 2016

The Tempest

The third in the Donmar trilogy of groundbreaking all-female Shakespeare productions doesn’t disappoint

Written by Ian Shuttlesworth

Sometimes, for no apparent reason, you just get multi- production pile-ups. For instance, 2016 has been a seven-lear year for me, and just at the moment things are quite tempestuous. Apart from productions at the RSC in Stratford and in the Little Print Room in Notting Hill, The Tempest now also completes the Donmar Warehouse’s trilogy of ianall-female Shakespeare productions at a spin-off venue in King’s Cross. It’s actually been running for a couple of months, but the press have only been let in recently to see the entire trilogy, as it’s been joined by revivals of 2012’s Julius Caesar and 2014’s edit of Henry IV. The three run in rep through the week, with ‘trilogy days’ on Saturdays.

Director Phyllida Lloyd has staged the plays as if they are being performed by inmates of a women’s prison. Thus, Jackie Clune as Julius Caesar is very much the boss of the cell block, and the weapons used in Henry IV are obviously-toy plastic guns that couldn’t be used in any escape attempt. Also, each play is given a prologue by one of the inmates explaining how, for instance, Henry IV teaches the prisoner playing Prince Hal about having the strength to reform one’s character. The Tempest is the most naked of the three in this respect: it speaks of prison as a place of confinement away from the outside world, of solitude and coming to terms with past, present and future alike. Which makes sense: if Shakespeare wrote the play as a set of disguised musings about theatre, why shouldn’t prisoners find in it thoughts about prison?

Dame Harriet Walter’s trio of performances – as brutus, King Henry and now Prospero, all in the meta-character of long-term inmate Hannah – constitute a towering achievement. In some ways, though, her Prospero is the least of the three. As I say, it’s more unadorned than the other two plays: the shipwrecked newcomers on the island are herded around by a prison officer, and when Prospero speaks of his ‘cell’ the word’s original monastic overtones sound entirely different here. However, the result isn’t an increased sense of intimacy but rather a greater sensitivity to the fact that the whole prison business is, so to speak, not a window we’re looking through but a structure we’re looking at.

Walter is far from the only top-notch performer here: Jade Anouka (Ariel, Mark Antony and Hotspur), Sophie Stanton (Caliban and Falstaff) and Clare Dunne (not in the tempest but a brilliant Prince Hal) are among the best of an excellent company. In the end, though, I think that – in wanting to counteract the escapist magic of this play in particular – Lloyd has been if anything too successful.

In repertory until 17 December at King’s Cross Theatre, London N1: 0844 815 7151, 

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