The tent village directly behind King's Cross station has been expanding exponentially. It started off as one tent that's home to two shows - The Railway Children and In the Heights. Now, playing side-by-side in new adjoining tents separated by a bar, is Lazarus, and the Donmar Warehouse produced trilogy of Shakespeare plays, each performed by an all-women ensemble cast. So that's now three tents and six shows; it's getting to feel a bit like the Edinburgh Fringe, but with much better shows. In fact, I'd heartily recommend each and every one of them; and there's plenty of contrast between them, from a classic family story and two bracing new musicals (by the hotter-than-hot Lin-Manuel Miranda and the late, great David Bowie respectively) to an invigorating approach to Shakespeare.
We've often, of course, had all-male Shakespeare's, as they were done in his own time, at Shakespeare's Globe and with Edward Hall's Propeller Company; and while the London stage can currently boast a female King Lear (at the Old Vic, played by Glenda Jackson), and earlier in the summer Michelle Terry played the title role in Henry V, a fully female company is much rarer. But the experiment that the Donmar Warehouse initiated in 2012 with Julius Casear and then followed with a truncated version of Henry IV in 2014, has now been wonderfully completed with a new production of The Tempest, all directed by Phyllida Lloyd and starring Harriet Walter.
The productions are bound by a common design and staging concept: they are being performed by the inmates of a diverse women's prison. We are corralled by female guards, and herded into the auditorium in groups for security. We are supposedly in the prison gym's game court, which we sit on raked plastic blue chairs positioned around it on all four sides. A steel grill cage wraps around the auditorium, as do live CCTV screens to show us what is happening elsewhere in the building (some of the action carries on into the foyers). Its deliberately unsettling. But it also has a strange sense of feeling slightly phoney, too. That much is a pity, because the shows have real dramatic weight and emotional integrity. As director Pyllida Lloyd comments in a programme note, "Shakespeare's plays burn brightly when performed by a single gender. Their veins become clearer. The plays still have so much to show us about what society does to corral men and women into certain patterns of behaviour." And The Tempest, in particular, surely speaks to women who are imprisoned more powerfully than most, as it revolves around people exiled on a strange island -- and trapped there. Prospero also finally gives freedom to both his spirit Ariel and his slave Caliban -- freedom that the women can't have for themselves. He also forgives and pardons, as some of these women -- serving life without parole -- never will be.
Lloyd's version arrestingly incorporates some of the supposed prisoners' own back stories into the fabric of the piece, and has occasional interventions by the guards, too. So we are always keenly aware that we are watching a play. But if there's a meta-theatrical element to it, the performances are robust and revealing on their own terms, without this editorialising. Harriet Walter is a revelation as Prospero (as she was also as Brutus in Julius Caesar and in the title role of Henry IV); she has a quiet but devastating authority. And she's surrounded by a really superb ensemble, including the magnificent Sophie Stanton as Caliban (also Falstaff in Henry IV), Jade Anouka as Ariel, Leah Harvey as Miranda, Sheila Atim as Ferdinand and Jackie Clune as Stefano.
There's a sudden flurry of Tempests around -- just a few days before this opened the RSC premiered a new one at Stratford-upon-Avon with Simon Russell Beale as Prospero that will be heading to London's Barbican next summer, while London's Print Room has another version opening on November 25. But this Donmar production is both unique and faithful to the spirit of a play about letting go of the past and moving into the future.
What the Press Said...
"The all-female casts and prison setting make you see the three plays afresh. The double focus of seeing them through the lives of the prisoners playing the characters is invigorating."
Lynn Gardner for The Guardian
"Walters’ delivers a wonderfully intelligent performance."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"A celebration of the fertile possibilities of breaking free of conventional casting."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard