The Tempest

By Carol Rocamora

Set on enchanted isle, Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a fantastical play, in which characters with supernatural powers cause storms and shipwrecks with the wave of a wand.    So it’s hard to imagine how a director can pull off a production of such a fantastical play by setting it in a women’s prison.   

And yet that’s exactly the kind of theatre magic that director Phyllida Lloyd and her all-female ensemble have achieved, in the final production of their Shakespearean trilogy at the Donmar Warehouse.   All three (directed by Lloyd, starring Harriet Walter) have been set in a women’s prison, with the inmates performing the plays in a stadium-like arena.  All three crossed the Atlantic to perform at the St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn (2013-2016), and all three streamed on the St. Ann’s website. 

As mentioned in my previous reviews of Julius Caesar and Henry IV, the first two in the trilogy, these productions were inspired by a shared creative process between real prisoners, the ensemble, and the production team – lending a remarkable authenticity to the work.  The Tempest begins – as did the previous productions – with the female prisoners dressed in sweats marching along a brick wall, through iron gates, and into a stadium-like prison arena, where they proceed to perform.  As an introduction, an actress (the remarkable Harriet Walter) introduces herself as “Hannah”, a 66-year-old bank robber serving a life sentence with no parole.  “Prison is a time of reckoning,” she says, as she launches into her performance of Prospero, the former Duke of Milan driven from his kingdom by his scheming sibling Antonia (Carolina Valdes) and others.

It’s Prospero’s time of reckoning, too.  For the past 12 years, he’s been supreme ruler of a remote island where he has taken refuge. Using the powers he’s acquired from magical books, he’s conjured up a storm, shipwrecking a boat on his shores with all his enemies on board.  Now Prospero will take his revenge, aided by his servant, the spirit Ariel (a marvelous Jade Anouka), and his slave, Caliban ( a lively Sophie Stanton). Meanwhile, Prospero’s daughter Miranda (Leah Harvey) falls in love with Ferdinand (Sheila Atim), son of Prospero’s enemy, intensifying the stakes.

The magic of Lloyd’s production lies in the ingenuity that she and her collaborators bring to it.   The storm is projected by screaming voices of the ensemble and fabulous lightning (designed by James Farncombe).  Actresses wearing orange prison vests sit on chairs back to back in their “boat” on the storm-tossed sea.  Nets full of trash (bottles, cans, plastics) are “washed ashore” onto the theatre floor.   As in the prior two productions of the trilogy, there is lively music (both rock and folk) played by an ensemble of company members (Joan Armatrading, composer).  There’s also a delightful wedding dance (honoring Miranda and Ferdinand), choreographed by Ann Yee.

When Prospero shares his final, moving vision with the audience, forecasting his plan to forgive his enemies and free Ariel and Caliban, the stage and auditorium go dark, and audience members are instructed to turn on the flashlights they find at their seats to create a magical moment.  As Prospero says: “We are such stuff as dreams are made of.”

Family, forgiveness and freedom, deep themes of The Tempest, are underscored by the meta-theatrical prison context of the play.   In the end, as the other actresses leave the arena (signifying they’ve all been released from prison), the marvelous Harriet Walter – now “Hannah the prisoner” again – is left alone on the stage to serve out her life sentence.  “O brave new world, that hath such people in it” – this should also be said of these daring, inspiring collaborators who have brought forth such a stunning  Shakespearean trilogy.

Shakespeare’s The Tempest, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, taped at Donmar Warehouse Kings Cross, streamed through November 1 on the St. Ann’s Warehouse website.

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