The Imprisoned Storm

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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.

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Jade Anouka as Ariel, with The Tempest company

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.

https://www.donmaratkingscross.com/

 

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Albion in crisis

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Lear and his daughters. Photo by Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC 

 

King Lear, Royal Shakespeare Company, Live from Stratford-Upon- Avon

The realm is in great confusion. The nation is divided, rulers abdicate their responsibilities, and doom-laden prophecies are whispered everywhere…

Not, as you might be tempted to think, modern Brexit Britain, but the Albion of Shakespeare’s King Lear.  In his pre-broadcast chat, this production’s director Gregory Doran (who’s also of course the RSC’s Artistic Director) said that rehearsals had begun in the week of the referendum, and it’s hard not to find modern parallels in the story of Lear.

We first glimpse Antony Sher’s Lear as he’s carried aloft, screened from unworthy eyes, like a kind of Medieval eastern potentate. The court he’s carried into had definite hints of Byzantium for me. Sher’s performance is masterful – well, he’s Antony Sher, you wouldn’t really expect any less, would you? His Lear is both loathsome and pitiable, beginning as a commanding figure, bulked up by a huge fur coat, and gradually dwindling as the play progresses.

This play is the ultimate portrayal of familial dysfunction, and there are plenty of clues as to how his daughters ended up the way they did – having dealt with a man by turns autocratic and emotionally needy, the real miracle is that Cordelia didn’t go the same way. Nia Gwynne’s magnificently scornful Goneril  has clearly developed a hard skin to deal with her father’s constant resentment that she’s not the male heir he hoped for, whilst Kelly Williams’ simpering Regan has had to develop an act to survive. 

Although Lear has his name in the title, he and his family don’t hog all the action. In the first half especially, some of the best lines go to Paapa Essidedu’s Edmund, the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester. This is another dysfunctional  relationship – Edmund’s resentment at the contrast between his father’s treatment of him and his legitimate half-brother Edgar drives him to try to destroy both. Essiedu, recently a brilliant Hamlet  (see here), is a fiery and charismatic Edmund. His excellent performance is matched by that of Oliver Johnstone as Edgar, who grows from a Tim-nice-but-dim figure at the start, to nobility by the end.

Edgar is one of the few survivors at the end of this most unremittingly bleak tragedy, which has a tendency to reduce its audience to emotional wrecks. I had already started welling up at Sher’s Lear grieving over the body of Cordelia, but what tipped me over the edge were Antony Byrne’s last lines as the Earl of Kent, promising to follow after his dead master.

The old leave the stage, leaving the surviving but leaderless young to try to pick up the pieces. Brexit Britain again?

Alka-Seltzer for the soul

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Geoffrey Streatfeild as Ivanov. (c) Johan Persson

 

Ivanov, part of Young Chekhov at the National Theatre, London.

Chekhov with a hangover. That’s one that could go either way really isn’t it? Either perfectly in tune with the despair induced by over-indulgence, or just too existentially crushing. I have to admit that the only reason I hauled myself into London for this was that the ticket was too damn expensive to waste. But I was so glad I did. What a hangover cure.

The main reason for this is Geoffrey Streatfeild’s performance in the title role. What is it that tips an actor from being just good into something mesmerising? Is it just an extra helping of talent or some weird kind of charisma? Whatever it is, I reckon he’s got it. I suspected it after seeing him in last year’s The Beaux Stratagem, (see here) but this performance confirmed it.

Just as you can’t have Hamlet without the prince, this play stands or falls on its central performance, and Streatfeild’s is a tour de force. His Ivanov is a man suffering not from the self-indulgent Russian melancholy  that Chekhov characters are sometimes accused of possessing, but a deep and genuine depression, with all the paralysis interspersed with self-destructiveness which that entails.

There may be other Hamlet parallels there, but I found Ivanov more sympathetic and less irritating than I usually find Hamlet. Even as the play narrows towards its unhappy ending , you’re still hoping against hope that Ivanov will somehow pull through (apologies if that’s a spoiler – but this is Chekhov, after all).

Aside from Streatfeild, the stand-out performances for me came from the play’s women. Olivia Vinall as Sasha, the young woman who offers Ivanov a hope of redemption, is a real discovery for me. She captures beautifully  all the touching ruthlessness of a teenage girl trying to turn her first crush into a real relationship. The ever-brilliant Nina Sosanya is touching as Ivanov’s dying first wife, making you pity her even as you understand his irritation with her devotion. Emma Amos brings genuine heart to social-climbing Marfusha Babakina, who could too easily topple over into caricature.

Ivanov – alongside the other Young Chekhov plays – is at the National Theatre for just one more week!

https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/ivanov