Theatre review: Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy – The Tempest

Theatre review: Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy – The Tempest

The Tempest
Written by William Shakespeare

Donmar Warehouse
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Cast: Harriet Walter, Leah Harvey, Sheila Atim, Jade Anouka, Karen Dunbar, Jackie Clune,, Sophie Stanton, Martina Laird, Jennifer Joseph, Shiloh Coke, Zainab Hasan, Carolina Valdes

Opus Arte DVD

The Tempest is often seen as Shakespeare's valedictory work, a farewell to the stage, perhaps the last play wholly written by him, one where there is some amount of reflection on the part of an older dramatist stepping aside to allow a new generation to make their own mark on the world. As such it proves to be the ideal way to end the Donmar Warehouse's Trilogy, a series of three Shakespeare plays directed by Phyllida Lloyd, set in a 'prison yard' and featuring the same all-woman troupe of actors, some of them coming from a community prison rehabilitation scheme.

The parallels between a prison cell and Prospero's island are obvious; cut off from the rest of the world, reputation and position lost, caught up in a storm of emotions, but Harriet Walter adopts another persona from a real-life prisoner to deepen the sentiments and the connections between Shakespeare and The Tempest. She becomes 'Hannah', a 66 year-old woman who has been in prison for over 30 years, effectively doing a life sentence. Claiming to be a political prisoner, believing that her imprisonment to be unjust she holds a burning anger for those she believes have contributed to her being there, but over time she has had time to reflect and try to find some way of adjusting to her life in prison and take back come kind of control over her life.

That effectively, is the same position that Prospero, the Former Duke of Milan, finds himself in. Trapped on the island of the witch Sycorax, raging at his enemies who have plotted to put him there, he uses the magic powers gifted to him to harness the powers of good and evil on the island (Ariel and Caliban - also both prisoners) when the opportunity comes to correct the injustice and punish those responsible. It's a way of working through his issues, letting go of the past, learning to forgive and forget, but Prospero also feels a duty as a father to ensure the education and future of his daughter Miranda, and that is something that is difficult even for a father in the outside world to do, never mind one who is banged up in a cell.

In the context of Phyllida Lloyd's retelling of the story, Prospero is a lifer, his magic little more than fantasies of exercising power and retribution against his enemies. His experience and knowledge are nonetheless respected by other inmates as the possession of a unique kind of power, particularly those new to the system, like Ariel, who need a guiding hand that will set them off on a path to freedom once they have done their time. Just as Shakespeare used his magic as a playwright to invent and control characters, to whip up a storm of a plot and then step away, drowning his book at the finale, there's a neat parallel here to an elder prison 'statesman' sharing his experience to set a new generation on their way through the world.

Being unable to be a true father to his daughter while he is in prison is however a more serious concern for Prospero the prisoner. He wants to ensure her future, but as much as he tries this is largely beyond his power to control. Fortunately, he is finally content that Miranda herself has made the right choices in her marrying Ferdinand, and is finally able to trust that her future is in safe hands. Some of the most touching scenes in this production are in the joyous celebrations of Miranda and Ferdinand (both superbly played by Leah Harvey and Sheila Atim) and in the inventive ways that Prospero and the other inmates conjure a marriage feast and ceremony for them within the prison.

As with the other productions in the trilogy, there are a lot of cuts to the original material and significant changes of emphasis, but to my mind absolutely nothing that takes away from the original intention of the work. On the contrary, it deepens it and makes it even more meaningful. The Stefano and Trinculo drunken comedy episodes with Caliban are downplayed but still amusing, Antonio and Sebastian's plotting against Gonzalo and Alonso loses potency, and the bitter quest to enact retribution upon Naples is given less emphasis in favour of a journey towards forgiveness, finding an accommodation with the past and a more optimistic or accepting outlook on the future.

Using an all-woman cast in a prison environment to bring out such entirely new perspectives on Shakespeare for the Donmar Trilogy was a daring and ambitious move, but one that has paid off tremendously. The strong mix of regional accents, the willingness of the actors to workshop and experiment with the meaning and presentation of Shakespeare's texts brings many moments of wonder and sheer admiration, and Phyllida Lloyd has done a tremendous job of bringing it all together to make something coherent. Not for one second do you think a part would be better played with a man in the role. Unquestionably however it's Harriet Walter who is the key presence and motivator in all three works, but particularly here in The Tempest. It's a truly great performance, creating one of the most three-dimensional human Prosperos I have ever seen.

The third of Phyllida Lloyd's all-female trilogy of Shakespeare productions at the Donmar (alongside Julius Caesar and Henry IV), the filmed version of The Tempest is released on DVD by Opus Arte. The DVD is in NTSC format and region-free for worldwide distribution and compatibility, and it looks and sounds impressive, the image clear and well-lit, with dynamic Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 sound options. There are a good selection of extra features that cover the intentions and approach to the play with contributions from Phyllida Lloyd and the actors which, alongside the full-length director's commentary, give a good insight into the choices made here. The booklet has an introduction by Phyllida Lloyd, a synopsis and a look at the real-life inspiration that informed Harriet Walter's character of Prospero.

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