She put Shakespeare into a modern jail setting, with an all female cast of prisoners/performers. First Julius Caesar, then Henry IV and now The Tempest make up a trilogy of canon-crushing productions, playing at at the Donmar temporary theatre in Kings Cross.
All three plays are framed by the same prison setting, with the same ‘inmates’ putting on a Shakespeare play, wearing the same androgynous regulation tracksuit.
We experience the Shakespeare plays via the prisoners’ productions. The duality is constant: Harriet Walter plays a trio of mighty male parts - Brutus, Henry IV and Prospero - but she is also always Hannah, a political prisoner serving a life sentence without parole.
The two tiers of fiction are symbiotic: Shakespeare’s plots provoke insights into the prisoners playing the parts; the contemporary jailhouse setting intensifies and accents familiar themes of power-struggle, dependency and desperation.
The result is sobering and stunning. The Roman politics of Julius Caesar feel all the more pressing in the context of underhand attempts to be king-pin of the penitentiary. An artfully edited down combination of parts one and two of Henry IV hones in on the dependent dynamic between Hal and Falstaff with the journey from wayward prince to worth king paralleled by addiction rehabilitation and recovery. Then The Tempest positions Prospero as imprisoned - left to Caliban and confined in a cell when others are ‘released’ to Naples.
Individually or as a full-day epic, the plays are a glorious testament to the tremendous talent of actors who, according to tradition, should be mere bit-parts to middle-aged white men. Every single performance is masterful - and the scale of three shows in a day magnifies the skill. Harriet Walter is every bit as luminous as expected, but Jade Anouka (as Mark Antony, Hotspur and Ariel) and Clare Dunne (Octavius Caesar, Portia, Prince Hal) shine just as bright.
Though there’s been a tide of feminism in theatre since Lloyd’s first all-female Shakespeare in 2012 - Maxine Peake played Hamlet, Glenda Jackson is playing Lear, The Royal Court and Globe theatres are run by women - it still feels subversive to have a stage filled with women.
We like to think Shakespeare is for everyone - his stories and language span the human condition and reflect our lives, no matter how diverse. But actually it takes a bold, brave vision to recast revered Elizabethan literature to reflect the overlooked suffering and drama of women who are, literally, locked away from sight and mind.
Phyllida Lloyd's three productions make that universality feel truer than ever.
Under a new Young and Free ticket scheme, a quarter of the Shakespeare Trilogy seats will be available free to those under 25.
“It’s time, with these ‘young and free’ tickets, to join together our question about who gets to play these roles with a renewed mission for who gets to experience them,” says Rourke.
And, after branching out to King's Cross, the Donmar will travel all the way across the Atlantic as The Tempest transfers to New York's St Ann's Warehouse in January 2017 and joins Donmar transfers Privacy and Les Liasions Dangereuses.
|What||Donmar's Female Shakespeare Trilogy review|
On the corner of King’s Boulevard and Good’s Way King’s Cross, London, N1C | MAP
|Nearest tube||King's Cross St. Pancras (underground)|
23 Sep 16 – 17 Dec 16, Performance times tbc
|Website||Click here for more information|