Dusting off the ‘ol Bard can be a difficult task. There have been millions of Shakespeare adaptations throughout time many of them miserably bad. Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female The Tempest at St. Anne’s Warehouse makes Shakespeare something meta, setting the story in a women’s prison. This structure both helps and hurts the experience, resurrecting the text with an exciting new concept, but distracting from the excellently raw performances of the cast and the powerful themes that already run deep in the play. The different take on the play is good, but being good at Shakespeare is different enough.
The performance is the third and final chapter in Lloyd’s Donmar Warehouse Shakespeare trilogy, each cast compiled entirely of women and each set in the prison. There was Julius Caesar, Henry IV, both of which also showcased at St. Ann’s, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest is an appropriate finale. A play within a play, the actors are all, firstly, prisoners. When the life of the play takes over, there’s a suspension of belief and prisoners move about freely in their performances. A friend who accompanied me to the play thought the actors were actually prisoners. After the show, she was shaking. I had enjoyed the show, more than I expected, but I was shocked at how moved she was. “Well, Hannah has been in prison for, what, 35 years did they say?” I quickly cleared up the confusion. “No,” they were, in fact, actual actors.
This is a testament to Lloyd’s concept, though. It’s greatly reminiscent of Peter Weiss’ 1963 play ,Marat/Sade, which is performed by inmates of an asylum. By placing actors in a setting that ignites questions around punishment, confinement, and cultural and societal prejudices, these same questions are illuminated within the play. Lloyd, especially with her all female, and impressively diverse cast, is on that mission. Harriet Walter plays Hannah, a member of the prison who was sentenced for her part in a politically motivated robbery. Like Prospero, the role she plays this time around in the trilogy, she’s been abandoned by her country and its “system.” Her daughter, Miranda (Leah Harvey), is in prison with her along with all the other cast members. In between scenes, the dimension of the play is broken, and we’re reminded of the lives of the prisoners playing each role. It’s both as confusing as it sounds, in parts where it doesn’t work, and wonderfully powerful, in moments it does work, particularly when the lords of Milan arrive on shore. They’re wealthy, slick members of society who have all the sudden been stripped down to nothing; no privilege on this island.
The cast doesn’t make each character feminine, but sticks with the gender originally written in the play. The majority of actors settled into the text and physical performance with ease. Karen Dunbar’s Trinculo and Jackie Clune’s Stefano were a standout. Drunk, in their boxers and out of their minds, the duo’s chemistry is hilarious. Clune and Dunbar also give a gravitas to roles that are often played with broad physical comedy that ignores the inherent wit in the language and situation. Sheila Atim’s Ferdinand and Harvey’s Miranda, were brimming. Passion and excitement flowed from every syllable, gushing, and truly bringing a much needed honest life to the play. Walter had moments of superiority, commanding the stage as Prospero must, but overall felt a bit exhausted. It was unclear if this exhaustion was stemming from a character choice or not, either way, connecting the emotional dots of Prospero suffered because of it. He’s not an easy character to grasp, many believing he’s a keyhole in Shakespeare’s own interior state at the time. Compared the the other women, who crafted beautiful journeys for themselves, Walter’s interpretation of Prospero’s through line needed some chiropractic adjustments. Walter’s certainly no short of a Shakespearean virtuoso, so this could have been one of the many ways the play’s exterior prison structure made the performances confusing.
By far, the most enjoyable part of the experience was Ariel, played by Jade Anouka. Often played androgynously, many performers have made Ariel fairy-like, a spirit. Anouka and Lloyd approached Ariel in a refreshing, grounded way, having her carry around a boombox and dancing in high top sneakers when given an order from Prospero. With a raspy, rich voice and an excellently magical presence, Anouka was the most effective representation of entrapment vs. freedom. She, with continual enthusiasm, obeys Prospero’s orders in hopes of being set free. Prospero and his servant Caliban, on the other hand, seem to have lost that hope of freedom long ago.
The Tempest can often prove a cynical play, especially when explored in the confines of this prison structure. The lovers, Ariel and many of those washed ashore, escape the island. Prospero stays with Caliban. The plays leaves us without a clear scale of justice. This would prove effective without the added prison structure surrounding Shakespeare’s last work. Lloyd and her cast deliver such wonderful performances that one wishes they would shed the confines of their own structure. But would audiences still experience the same effectiveness of the themes around justice and confinement threaded through the text without the prison exterior? Perhaps not.
Starring: Harriet Walter, Leah Harvey, Karen Dunbar, Jackie Clune and Jade Anouka
Directed by: Phyllida Lloyd
Through: February 19 at St. Ann’s Warehouse.