With the fine taste of The Donmar’s slash Phyllida Lloyd’s Julius Caesar still fresh in my mouth ‑ some four years later, perfection is not easily forgotten – I quickly bought tickets for the Tempest that was to be presented at a new Donmar space as part of an all-female Shakespearean trilogy of Julius Caesar, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and it. To be honest, seeing Harriet Walter again wasn’t a big push for me – I hadn’t even bothered looking at the cast list – but I felt very confident in Lloyd really getting how to make Shakespeare come alive and didn’t hesitate to go.
Since this is being done in a brand new theater space, let me tell you a little bit about it. First of all, it’s behind King’s Cross, but not all the way where In The Heights is happening …. it’s much closer, just out the main ticket office for the Northern line (etc.). Inside there’s a bar and it looks like two theaters are there, but I could be mistaken. Unfortunately, the chairs in the space are the worst kind of non-ergonomic plastic ones imaginable, the kind that make your bum go numb after twenty minutes and cut off circulation to your legs in a hour. What a different from the luxury of the Royal Court! However, I have to honestly say I got so caught up in the action of the show that I completely failed to notice any physical discomfort, even though I had to shake my legs out afterwards. This is pretty good considering that we started darn close to 7:30 (after a bit of silly “let the new inmates in” nonsense) and were clapping our hearts out at 9:25 – almost two straight hours and I was caught up about all of the way through.
The conceit, once again, is that we are in a woman’s prison, but it no longer feels like Lloyd is presenting a prisoners’ production of a play. Instead, the whole prison thing, with her working with incarcerated women, seems to have taken over her creative imagination, especially with the back story of one prisoner she’s used to inform the character of Prospero. Prospero is a person stuck on an island with people who aren’t her friends and with little to entertain her besides her books; her love of her daughter – in the case of the prisoner, they were separated forever when the mother went to jail – is a great motivating factor for her, and the woman who is the prison daughter, Miranda, seems to have built a relationship that meets both of their needs.
And so we buy into the conceit of the play, The shipwreck itself is glossed over in favor of going directly to the intake of four new prisoners into jail; fine, so be it, we have a story to tell here. And we have bits of sets and costumes that are clearly inspired by “what could be made in a woman’s prison using the materials at hand,” most hysterically involving tampons. And there is modern music played through a beatbox and Trinculo drinks from a plastic cider bottle and oooh the feeling at the very end when we realize our Prospero cannot escape her jail.
But mostly, and I hate to say it, I think this conceit has been worn out. I’ll happily see women acting these roles and need little excuse for it (much like the all-male Gilbert and Sullivans that Sasha Regan puts on , I only need the thinnest reason to buy in), but the moments when this play is wonderful come from a few bits of stagecraft that are far beyond anything believable in a prison (balloons and a few hundred tiny flashllights) and from, don’t sell it short, some really fucking awesome acting that I totally loved. In the end I felt the show was hindered more than helped by its trope; but such a good show still was only held back a little. I wish, in the end, though, that Lloyd had taken us somewhere truly new; now that would have really been a brave new world which would have surely left me marvelling.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, October 19th It continues in rep through Dec 17th.)