Thursday, 6 October 2016

Theatre review: The Tempest (Donmar King's Cross)

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: I can't see any sign of the papers having been invited to this yet.

Phyllida Lloyd's all-female Shakespeare productions were announced as a trilogy, and the theme of "red hands" that ran through the other two plays made me think Macbeth might be the final bloody part. As it turns out Lloyd's idea was actually to do one tragedy - the original Julius Caesar - one history - the condensed Henry IV - and one comedy, which turns out to be The Tempest. As with the other two productions, the framing device is that Shakespeare's play is being staged by the inmates of a women's prison, a setting that would seem to lend itself better to the other two genres, but in fairness this is one of the comedies that's rarely actually funny. Instead the more accurate term of "late romance" would seem particularly appropriate here, as the prison story focuses even more on a character whose backstory has been becoming more prominent over the trilogy, and who of course is also the real-life company's big name: Hannah, the character Harriet Walter uses in the framing device, based on a real American lifer with no hope of parole.

So it's of course Walter's time to play Prospero, the banished (quite fairly, to be honest, although the edited text here doesn't focus too much on that side of things) Duke who's started a new life as a sorcerer on an island inhabited only by him, his daughter, a slave and some mystical spirits. When a ship carrying those who deposed him comes near the island, Prospero uses his magic to raise a storm shipwrecking them, so he can put in action a plan to get his dukedom back.

In many ways it's obvious why Lloyd picked The Tempest as her prison "comedy," starting with a very impressive opening as the audience is surrounded - for this final production instead of the Donmar we're in a specially designed (by Bunny Christie) in-the-round space at the ever-expanding King's Cross Theatre - by the sound of banging on cages to signify the titular storm. It also becomes apparent how many references to imprisonment and slavery there are in the script - Prospero's rooms are always referred to as a "cell," Jade Anouka's rapping Ariel moves in a way that references his 12 years imprisoned in a tree, while the island itself is a place the characters are trapped in for most of the play. It's a hard play to bring the comedy out of and this production doesn't, really, but we do get a Miranda (Leah Harvey) and Ferdinand (Sheila Atim) who actually make an impact, which is an achievement in itself.

Chloe Lamford designs this final installment and has some nice ideas within the minimalist aesthetic: Big piles of rubbish represent the island itself while huge white balloons and a moment when the audience themselves provide the lighting, add to the most atmospheric of the plays - it's nice to see an acknowledgement that just because it's set in a prison it doesn't have to always be on the verge of the riot, instead the focus is on the relationships between the women and how Hannah has to see everyone she cares about eventually get their lives back while she stays put. This more sympathetic Prospero even acknowledges that getting his power back is in someone else's gift, and in a change to the original doesn't get his wish, as Hannah is left to languish on the island/in prison. Of the three, this is probably the one where the framing device most overpowers the actual Shakespeare play, and if I had to pick one (the other two plays will be returning to play in rep) I'd say Henry IV best matches the material to the setting. But this certainly has some interesting ideas and a melancholy charm of its own.

The Tempest by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 15th of December at the King's Cross Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes straight through.

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