A brilliantly bracing new version of The Tempest completes Phyllida Lloyd’s inspired trilogy of all-female Shakespeare productions which kicked off with Julius Caesar in 2012 and continued a couple of years later with a condensed version of Henry IV. The shift of venue from the Donmar’s Covent Garden premises, where the first two were performed, to this much larger, specially constructed theatre – with the audience sitting on all four sides of the action – does not in any way dissipate the special intensity of these productions which imagine that the plays are being performed by the inmates of a women’s prison. You can see all three of them – either individually in rep or at Saturday marathons. The marathons are mostly sold out but, believe me, no queue for returns is more worth joining.
The advantage of seeing the shows in sequence is two-fold. You get to marvel at the astonishing versatility of the actors – Harriet Walter as her prison character’s portrayal of Brutus, Henry IV and Prospero; Jade Anouka ditto as Mark Antony, Hotspur, and Ariel; Sophie Stanton ditto as Falstaff and Caliban etc. There’s a quirky earthiness, comic grit, and fiercely choreographed punch in this splendid diverse cast which has no weak link. The other main benefit is that you can appreciate the varied ways Lloyd uses the prison metaphor and shows how the politics of this particular institution and the politics of the play impinge on each other.
There’s a terrific edginess, for example, about her Julius Caesar that makes you jumpily alert both to how Rome itself had become a prison for its citizens under Caesar and the inherent riskiness of mounting a play about tyrannicide in a jail. The volatile atmosphere is harnessed superbly in the twist given here to the scene where the rioting citizens mistakenly kill Cinna the poet. The actor who was going to play the latter is called away for his meds and his reluctant replacement, nervously clutching the script, is cruelly baited as performer rather than character in a way that threatens to get dangerously out of hand. The hooter sounds and the warders move in at various points throughout the trilogy.
At the start of The Tempest, Harriet Walter announces that she is Hanna, a lifer who has served 35 years and is ineligible for parole. The production is full of delights – especially Jade Anouka’s streetwise, red-wedged Ariel who part-raps some of her songs and performs a crinkly spasm of break-dance under crackly light whenever Prospero mentions the prospect of freedom. Sheila Atim (Ferdinand) and Leah Harvey (Miranda) are adorably funny and charming as they capture the giddy gaucheries of first love, while their betrothal masque with its single oranges and pears and turrets of foil-wrapped sandwiches feels all the more touching and magical for not the being the usual vulgar cornucopia. I liked the way the shipwrecked courtiers were chivvied on and off by prison warders and how there is a tension throughout between their control and Prospero’s power over the islanders who include a Brummie bag lady Caliban (superb Sophie Stanton). Joan Armatrading’s lovely calypso-tinged music excels with a luscious bluesy “Where the bee sucks” for Ariel.
Walters’ delivers a wonderfully intelligent performance. This Prospero has to strain every nerve to forgive his enemies and sobs with a terrible depth of grief at the thought of “the insubstantial pageant faded”. There’s also a fantastic lightness of touch to the brisk way he pops his magic book into the rubbish almost before he knows what he’s done so that he can’t change his mind. And, of course, given that he is played by Hanna played by Walter, there is an excruciating twist to “As you from crimes would pardoned be, Let your indulgence set me free”. The proceedings end here with him reading a book in his cell – everyone gone but Caliban noisily operating a floor-polisher. It’s a devastating sight.
There have been many high-profile Shakespeare productions to mark 400 years since his death. Lloyd’s Tempest is my personal favourite.
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