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Theatre in Review: The Tempest (Donmar Warehouse at St. Ann's Warehouse)

Harriet Walter. Photo: Teddy Wolff.

Harriet Walter's Prospero is such a thrilling and original characterization that it very nearly justifies Phyllida Lloyd's over-interpreted staging of Shakespeare's late-career masterpiece. Many of the men I've seen in the role are grand, yet remote, presences, watching the action from afar, biding their time as they arrange events to arrive at a long-delayed reckoning. Walter's approach couldn't be more different, in ways that suggest that she has thought long and hard about the text. Her Prospero is a tightly coiled ball of impatience; having endured years of exile on a remote island, and having perfected the esoteric powers that he has acquired in his near-solitude, he is tense with expectation, ready at long, long last to confront his enemies and settle matters once and for all.

As he explains to his daughter, Miranda, the course of events -- most notably his brother's betrayal -- that brought them to his island, Walter's Prospero is irritable, chiding his preternaturally innocent offspring for not attending to his tale. Having summoned up a powerful storm that places his brother, Antonio, and his cronies within his grasp, he dispatches Ariel, his spirit servant, with unusual urgency, as if eager for this business to be finalized. He interrupts the nuptials of Miranda and Ferdinand (son of the King of Naples, Antonio's partner in crime) in a total fury, delivering the famous speech that begins "Our revels now have ended," not as a thoughtful meditation on time's passage but as a warning that haste must be made because the most important business has yet to be addressed. That business comes when Prospero confronts Antonio and the others; having them in hand, he has chosen to forgive them. But for Walter's Prospero this is no simple task. Each statement of "I do forgive thee" costs a little bit of his soul. When he arrives at Antonio, the statement catches in his throat; only with the greatest physical effort does he manage to force the words out. In this and in so many other things, the rough magic practiced by Walter keeps one in her thrall.

This is, however, the final entry in a trilogy, staged by Lloyd and starring Walter, of all-female productions of Shakespeare. (It was preceded by Julius Caesar and a single-evening amalgamation of the Henry IV plays.) The conceit of all three is that we're seeing Shakespeare staged by the inmates of a women's prison. I didn't see Julius Caesar, but The Tempest pursues the concept further; it begins with Walter announcing that she is Hannah, jailed for her participation in a bank robbery that was an act of political protest; the event ended in police deaths. Refusing to accept the legitimacy of the state at her trial, she is now in prison without the possibility of parole.

Thus, we are not seeing a straightforward production of The Tempest. We are seeing The Tempest as produced by specific prisoners for whom a play about confinement, exile, and forgiveness has a profound meaning. This is an interesting idea as far as it goes, but the constant intrusion of episodes of the inmates' daily life proves to be irritatingly intrusive. At times, one feels that Lloyd enjoyed every idea that was tried out in the rehearsal room and, unable to choose, decided to keep them all: The action pauses as laundry carts are brought on, for the women to change their uniforms; when a song is called for, two of the ladies launch into "I Know Him So Well" from Chess. (They have been locked up a long time!) Certain ideas already seem past their sell-by date: If the cause of political satire is to be advanced in this country, we need an instant moratorium on "Make America great again" jokes. And, of course, there is the inevitable lockdown scene.

Some ideas are so strange and unexpected that they catch one by surprise. A series of balloons fill the stage during the Miranda-Ferdinand wedding; on each of them is projected a montage of vacation film footage and commercials for such consumer goods as Nike -- everything denied to the women behind bars. But, as was the case with the Henry IV, the casting is extremely variable. Leah Harvey's Miranda has an honesty and directness that make it thoroughly clear that she is her father's daughter. Shelia Atim's Ferdinand has a gawky, love-struck manner that is easy to love. Jade Anouka is a true creature of the spirit world as Ariel, although I could do without her having to constantly re-enact -- in a break dance accompanied by sound effects -- the moment when Prospero freed her from captivity in a tree. None of the actors playing the villains stand out, and the comedy subplot, featuring Caliban, Prospero's brutish servant (played in a shrill Cockney voice by Sophie Stanton), and the treacherous, marooned Stephano and Trinculo, is especially lumbering here.

This production features a prison set, by Chloe Lamford, that is indistinguishable from the London production's prison set designed by Bunny Christie and Ellen Nabarro. Lamford did the costumes, which don't seem very different from those by Deborah Andrews for Henry IV. James Farncombe returns as the lighting designer, alternating stark white washes with judicious splashes of saturated and chiaroscuro effects. (In one especially hokey moment, the room goes dark and the audience turns on tiny flashlights to create a sky pocked with stars.) Pete Malkin is the sound designer this time, and, thanks to him, the isle is full of noises, including hip-hop, EDM, and new age music, in addition to strangely powerful effects -- for example, a slap that is magnified until it sounds like the most murderous of blows.

Lloyd's concept does lead to a powerful conclusion in which, with everyone ready to depart the island, the cast reverts to their prisoner roles; all of them are being let go -- except for Hannah/Prospero. In an exchange with Harvey, we suddenly realize that she is no longer Miranda, but Hannah's daughter, paying a visit. The final image, of Hannah, alone on her bed, reading a novel by Margaret Atwood (Hag Seed, appropriately) is a chilling one, giving one a visceral sense of what it must be like to know that one will never again see the outside world.

Still, it's a long and bumpy road to that payoff. The best news, to me, is that Lloyd has completed her trilogy and we can all move on to happier productions. If nothing else -- and this is not an inconsiderable achievement -- they have demonstrated that Walter is ready to take on any male role in the Shakespearean canon. I know that Glenda Jackson got there first, but is it too much to hope that there is a King Lear in Walter's future? -- David Barbour


(19 January 2017)

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