This extraordinary production is the third in Phyllida Lloyd’s fearlessly original Shakespeare series for Donmar Warehouse, London. One can only pray there will be more. Allow me to quell possible reservations.
1. It’s an all women cast: The protean company quickly dispels any consciousness of sex in movement, mannerism, and inflection better than I’ve ever seen outside the reverse skill of Mark Rylance. As Shakespeare was classically performed exclusively by men, this should evoke less shock than it initially did.
2.The production is framed in a contemporary women’s prison: Its unusual environment allows this production to tackle ideas like honor, power, and betrayal Shakespeare most often saved for men as indigenous to and genderless within an incarcerated community.
The concept unequivocally works. Though we’re periodically reminded where we are beyond shapeless sweats and metal furniture – with the passing of a guard, resonant buzzer, or reference to “cell,” the context is so well integrated it affects without drawing attention to itself. Underpinnings about which we learn in a talkback – each actress has actually created a prison character – influence without distracting.
3. Artistic modernity will interfere with Shakespeare’s syntax, lyricism, or iconic tale: Ostensibly taking place in the imagination of a prisoner, the piece is put together as if raggle-taggle players made their add-on costumes and props from available debris. A lengthy garland of recyclable garbage, for instance, is a part of forager Caliban’s “attire”and later, the set. Huge helium balloons held down by water bottles decorate festivities. Joan Armatrading’s calypso-textured score is hardly the expected. (Music Director Shiloh Coke, also a capable actor.) Despite these playful elements, not for a moment does one lose the pathos, comedy, complicated relationship, or magic embedded in The Tempest. These are consummate actresses – intelligible, defined, impassioned, and decidedly un-highbrow.
Jade Anouka and Occupants of the Ship
In brief: Prospero, Duke of Milan has been usurped by his brother Antonio and cohorts who put the man and his child, Miranda, to sea in a leaky vessel. They’re rescued and brought to an island where the protagonist becomes a wizard and raises the girl. Their only company is primitive servant Caliban and Ariel, a spirit Prospero rescued, now bound to him by promise of freedom.
Those who commandeered home and position accidentally come close enough by boat for Prospero to conjure a storm which washes them ashore-safely due to Ariel’s ministrations. One of these is the young prince with whom Miranda, never having seen a man, falls immediately in love. Will Prospero kill the others, punish, or forgive? Certainly punishment is in order first. True personalities rise.
Leah Harvey and Sheila Atim
Harriet Walter’s Prospero is as commanding as they come. Parental love is vigorous and transparent as is its eventual, infectious joy. Eschewing bluster and volume, Walter palpably seethes up till and through the story’s point of reckoning. Wrestling with the need to forgive is visceral. We see Prospero plan and effect without contrivance. The character is human and comprehensible. Walter is riveting.
As Prospero’s daughter Miranda, Leah Harvey emits carbonated innocence. Her first view of “godly men”, alternative to love interest Ferdinand (Sheila Atim), finds the young woman indisputably enthralled. Harvey moves like a colt and radiates light. Sophie Stanton imbues the oppressed Caliban with tragic dignity as well as elemental survival mode. In this production, the character holds his own. Karen Dunbar’s Trinculo, the only role played in an actor’s own strong accent (Scotts) – though we hear many regional ones in the talkback- and his bosom buddy, Stefano (Jackie Clune), are stellar comic figures and pitch perfect drunks.
Jade Anouka is a standout Ariel among masterful performances. She often seems actually airborne or invisible. The wildness of this actress’s puckish embodiment is as organic as any mortal with whom the stage is shared. Trickery is persuasive. Anouka’s versatility includes a fine singing voice and the playing of steel drums with fluent, ethereal finesse. A prime example of the lack of necessity of special effects.
Director Phyllida Lloyd’s reimagined Tempest is a visual treat, emotionally captivating and intellectually fascinating. From the initial impetus of a diverse cast comprised entirely of women with a wide range of ages, physical attributes, race, and backgrounds, to the concept of incarcerated characters bearing affecting histories, living by their own laws, Lloyd has given us courageous theater. (The company has interacted with women’s prisons in the development and sharing of this piece.)
Aisles, doorways, and limited furniture are used to great effect. When occupants of the ship first appear, they’re lined up back to back on a single metal bed wearing life jackets. A central circle is often orbited around as enchantment occurs. Prison trolleys sail through as if illusions. The company’s energy and focus is unflagging. Two hours (without intermission) flies by, yet every scene has enough space to land. The show is dynamic and entertaining.
Jade Anouka and Celebrants
Movement Director Ann Yee keeps the piece flowing with expansive gestures, spellbound freeze frames, and choreography so seamless it appears as an extension of situational emotion, not formal “numbers.” Ariel’s small, repeated flexing, a reminder of escape from the oak in which Prospero found him imprisoned, is inspired.
Bunny Christie’s prison “Set” is minimal and credible. Chloe Lamford’s Design includes marvelous touches like tiny flashlights each of us find on our seats which are employed well into the play as gathered spirits and Ariel’s boom box which has recorded Prospero’s meant-to-haunt voice. Shapeless prison garb and men’s haircuts add to gender absence.
James Farncombe’s Sound Design- you’ll jump at prison doors, feel storms under your skin, and sense the ethereal, coordinates with Pete Malkin’s terrifically evocative Lighting.
Many of the actors have been in two or three of the series’ plays. Excerpts from the Talkback: “We can speak Shakespeare’s big speeches too. I mean how much fun have the guys been having!?” Jade Anouka…”I created an abused homeless woman who was literally punch drunk and became an alcoholic.” Karen Dunbar…The thought came to me to be schizophrenic. It really helped me to develop different characters.” Leah Harvey. “My character is under a long sentence having committed a crime of passion. Sheila Atim. “Mine was based on a woman I met in prison, an arsonist. Because someone had died in the fire, she was given a life sentence.” Sophie Stanton.
“Shakespeare is a person who believed in transformation. We don’t have to twist his words to say what we mean…My character is based on a real woman named Judy Clark. I wanted her to be political because I played Brutus in Julius Caesar. Clark is in a US prison for driving a getaway car at a violent political crime where people died. She’s done 35 years…a Prospero….who moved, without motivation, from revolutionary Fury to an almost Buddhist wisdom.”
Photos by Teddy Wolff
Opening: Guard, Harriet Walter, Sophie Stanton
Donmar Warehouse and St. Ann’s Warehouse present
The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
St. Ann’s Warehouse
45 Water Street/DUMBO
Through February 19, 2017