London theatre trip (1): William Shakespeare: The Tempest, Donmar at King’s Cross, Lonson (Director: Phyllida Lloyd)
By Sascha Krieger
Six years ago, renowned theatre and film director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!, The Iron Lady) set out to counter the male dominated culture of British theatre – examplified by the works of William Shakespeare – by staging Shakespeare with an all-female cast. The result was her production of Julius Caesar, followed in 2014 by Henry IV, again assembling the very same cast. Now the trilogy is complete: With The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last play, Lloyd and the Donmar company bring the three plays to the King’s Cross Theatre, a tent structure created to revive one of London’s many run-down areas. As in the earlier productions, Lloyd chooses a prison setting. Before the show starts, the cast makes its way through the waiting crowd, dressed in grey and escorted by prison guards. Inside, a cage encapsules them and us, with the audience surrounding the stage in a rectangle. A prison basketball court in Prospero’s Island, the stranded are repeatedly commanded and led by prison staff, and Prospero (Harriet Walter in a finely accentuated and mostly reduced performance) him/herself is subject to outside control.
The island is his prison and an escape impossible – as witnessed by the touching alternate ending in which Prospero is left alone on her prison bed. But of course the mataphor goes further: all characters are imprisoned not by outside forces but by their own guilt and that of their elders, their actions and thoughts, their bias and yes, also their acceptance of society’s limitations. If one is looking for a feminist interpretation, one might find it here. What unfolds is a story of redemption, forgiveness, a story of dreams big and small, the power of the imagination and humanity’s need for hope. Prison sirens repeatedly tear this world to pieces but resillience and dignity prevail. Walter based her Prospero on a real-life female prisoner who is servig a life sentence in the United States for a politically-motivated bank robbery that left several people dead. In the show, she is called Hanna and she is the master of dreams, the instigator of hope, the catalyst of forgiveness. There are beautiful scenes such as when the audience is asked – as co-conspirators in the illusion – to fill the darkness with the shine of a hundred flashlights or when white balloons are brought in reflecting the dreams of the imprisoned, before Walter destroys them and in desparation decries the illusion that is of hope. This scene has never felt rawer than here – infused with the concrete despair of someone knowing that hope is futile. Her forgiveness of her enemies feels real and contemporary, a guilty soul striving for some sort of peace with the world and herself.
This production is a remarkable new reading of Shakespeare’s. Having said that, The Tempest is a stubborn piece of work that from time to time emancipates from any interpretation. There are hilariously silly comedic scenes – Karen Dunbar’s Scottish Trinculo in particular is as annoying as memorably funny – that break through the prison setting. They might be part of the escapism shown in the dream and fantasy scenes or they might be a little mutiny by a play that refuses to be so conveniently framed. Whatever it is, this Tempest is a feminist showcase of women in theatre, a self-confident display of female power, acting and otherwise and a heartfelt story about humanity’s ability to change for the better, to set aside grudges and come together. The prison setting and the real-life case behind it considerably strengthen this message. In days like these, it’s a welcome one, indeed.