Donmar Warehouse at King’s Cross, London (****)
It’s hard to over-estimate the impact of Phyllida Lloyd’s Shakespeare Trilogy in its environmentally immersive aluminium shed by King’s Cross. As the programme notes eloquently point out, because of the place Shakespeare holds in our culture, we’ve been lulled into a false perspective of our society, given the disparity in the overall number of roles for women the plays reflect.
But given the time they were written when women were barred from the stage – even if England was then being ruled by a woman – perhaps the more interesting thing is just how many leading female protagonists he did actually manage to introduce into a very male-dominant society.
Even so, roll on 500 years and that reflection and perspective simply won’t wash any more. Beside the Rosalinds, Violas and Cleopatras, the number of roles for professional women actors is skewed, as is the reflection it gives back to us.
Enter Lloyd and her all female Donmar Shakespeares – an attempt to right the balance with a project that started out in 2012 with Julius Caesar, added Henry IV (with contracted parts 1 & 2) last year and culminated this autumn with The Tempest.
None, one fancies, would have travelled in quite the same way (to Broadway and back) had it not been for Harriet Walter sticking her colours to the mast from Day One, leading the company as Brutus, Henry IV and now Prospero. And another indispensable collaborator also hovers in the wings – Clean Break, the longtime much respected women’s theatre company working with women affected by the justice system.
It is perhaps Lloyd’s greatest achievement to have settled on prison as her central motif and context for all three plays – a decision that certainly for the first two productions brilliantly illuminated the situation of so many women with its spotlight on its dehumanising aspects and the tensions within of those `banged up’ as well as being a wonderfully rich metaphor for the plays themselves.
And so it is that in Lloyd and Harriet Walter’s Prospero, a woman Walter introduces as `Hannah’ banged up for Life, it finds its most tender, resonant parallel although you have to wait until the very end for it to find its full emotional pay-off as `Hannah’ lies on her cell bed, alone as the rest of the `inmates’ are let out to regain their freedom.
For this viewer, Lloyd’s approach works less well than the two previous productions in releasing new meanings generally from the text. Where it does succeed is quietly, cumulatively underscoring the play and Prospero’s journey as one about a parent letting go of a child and forgiveness.
You won’t find a more moving ten minutes than Prospero being reconciled to the brother who betrayed him, beautifully articulated by Walter. In that moment – as unforgettably expressed by Oscar Wilde as seen in his De Profundis at Reading Gaol last month – the journey to self-knowledge and acceptance, of forgiveness over venegeance becomes transcendent.
Elsewhere, there are some lovely moments of invention from Lloyd – visions of the outside world projected onto white balloons – an elegant wedding scene, buttressed by some enjoyably wild dancing with music composed by Joan Armatrading no less – and a company who never let you forget that this is a cast under duress, drawn from the roughest, most diverse and possibly most disadvantaged cross-section of society.
I’ve no doubt that in the future this trilogy will come to be seen as a benchmark, a landmark for its assertion of equality, boldness, intelligence and humanity – one that will eventually lead to a change in perception. Lloyd and her company deserve all the praise – and not least Harriet Walter, who has lead from the front, putting career where her convictions are. Pretty stupendous.
This review first published on this website, Nov 29, 2016; for previous reviews of Julius Caesar and Henry IV , see elsewhere on this site, under the appropriate years.
By William Shakespeare
Ariel: Jade Anouka
Ferdinand: Sheila Atim
Stefano: Jackie Clune
Sebastian: Shiloh Coke
Trinculo: Karen Dunbar
Miranda: Leah Harvey
Gonzalo: Zainab Hasan
Officer: Jennifer Joseph
Alonso: Martina Laird
Caliban: Sophie Stanton
Antonio: Carolina Valdés
Prospero: Harriet Walter
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Designer: Chloe Lamford
Theatre Environment Designer: Bunny Christie
Lighting Designer: James Farncombe
Sound Designer: Peter Malkin
Composer: Joan Armatrading
Movement Director: Ann Yee
Video Designer: Duncan McLean
Assistant Director: Ola Ince
Casting Directors: Vicky Richardson and Alastair Coomer CDG
Costume Supervisor: Morag Pirrie
Musical Director: Shiloh Coke
Associate Movement Director: Carolina Valdés
Voice and Text Coach: Barbara Houseman
First performance of this production of The Tempest at the Donmar Warehouse at King’s Cross, Sept 23, 2016.