The Tempest, Donmar Warehouse at King’s Cross
A prison buzzer sounds. “Please stand aside. Inmates coming through.”
Being bossed around by uniformed prison guards is not what you expect from an afternoon at the theatre, but it’s how Phyllida Lloyd’s production of The Tempest begins. This is the third of a trilogy of productions, all starring Harriet Walter at the head of an all-female cast, and all set in a women’s prison.
Here, she’s playing Prospero. My love for Harriet Walter is boundless, and she doesn’t disappoint here. Her Prospero captures both the mystical manipulator and the protective parent aspects of the character perfectly. You need a certain presence to bring Prospero to life, and she has it.
She’s got a good cast behind her, of which my favourite was Jade Anouka’s rapping, body-popping Ariel. I also liked Leah Harvey’s wide-eyed Miranda, and Jackie Clune and Karen Dunbar as the drunken duo of Stefano and Trinculo.
It’s easy to know how to feel about performances as good as these. Trickier for me is the women’s prison setting, with which I have to admit, I have a few issues. To start with the good: it does bring out the themes of imprisonment within the play, which I hadn’t really noticed before – and references to Prospero’s ‘cell’ suddenly gain a whole new meaning. The minimal set, and basic prison uniform costumes, prove that you don’t need fancy and beautiful settings to make Shakespeare work, lovely though they sometimes are – if you have performances like these, the words are enough.
But to me, the whole thing feels… apologetic, as if they felt the need to come up with an elaborate construct to justify the all-female cast. Why? Propeller Theatre – for example – do all-male Shakespeare, but they don’t feel the need to justify it by setting their productions in an Elizabethan playhouse. Performances this good do not need justification. I think my unease was increased further by a phrase used by director Phyllida Lloyd in the programme: “We felt that by putting the girls into prison uniform they were instantly freed and instantly androgynous.” Perhaps that’s true, but it also has shades of the patriarchal demand that if we wish to be taken seriously we must be less female.
Maybe all this felt necessary just four years ago when the first of this trilogy (Julius Caesar) was staged, but I’m not sure it is now, given some of the casting we’ve seen in recent years – whether that’s Maxine Peake’s Hamlet, or Michelle Terry as a brilliant Henry V (see here) in the highly mainstream setting of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, or Glenda Jackson’s upcoming Lear.
Perhaps it makes more sense in the context of the rest of the trilogy, as I’ve only seen this last part of it. Perhaps we haven’t come as far as I’d like to think. Perhaps we’ll only know in twenty years’ time, when Jade Anouka might be playing Prospero on the main stage at Stratford. Here’s hoping.