“She did confine thee” … A slightly odd one this, the Donmar’s all-female adaptation of The Tempest opened at the King’s Cross Theatre in late September, but from what I can tell won’t be officially reviewed until 22nd November. The reasoning being that it is part of their Shakespeare Trilogy (productions of Julius Caesar from 28th October and Henry IV from 17th November are being remounted) and on select days, audiences can see all three back-to-back.
And that is how director Phyllida Lloyd wants them to be critically reviewed, as an over-arching trilogy, which is all fine and good but tickets are either £90 or £120 for those days and I ain’t here for that (that said, if you’re 25 and under, 25% of the tickets are being made free due to this great scheme). So the majority of people seeing The Tempest will only see The Tempest and that’s why I’m writing this review now.
For this enterprise, the Donmar has decamped to the King’s Cross Theatre and a well-designed temporary space there (sightlines from the back row – F – are fine and dandy) with the audience seated on all four sides of the theatre. The sense of blank newness is perfectly suited to the institutional setting – Lloyd has returned to the prison set-up that has previously served so well – and retained several members of the ensemble including crucially, the glorious Harriet Walter, who has thrived on the opportunity to expand her already superlative Shakespearean experience. So from Brutus to Henry IV, she now ascends to take on the role of Prospero.
Or rather, a lifer who is playing the part of the sorcerer. And you suspect that this is what Lloyd wants emphasise for the critics, the arc of this particular prisoner and the changing dynamic she experiences with her cellmates. With this in mind, Prospero’s confinement on the island and authoritarian relationships with Ariel and Caliban gain a new resonance, the giving up of daughter Miranda representing a different power shift, all making the weariness of soul an aching sadness so easily appreciated. And to hear Walter’s masterful verse-reading crack with emotion through “we are such stuff as dreams are made on” thus becomes the kind of theatrical triumph one will never forget.
It’s a proper ensemble effort though – the effervescent Jade Anouka sparkles as a street-smart Ariel, rapping as much singing, and Leah Harvey and Sheila Atim connect beautifully as the thoroughly smitten Miranda and Ferdinand. Chloe Lamford’s design makes inventive use of all aspects of this new space, sprinkling some real magic in there whilst never letting us forget we’re behind bars. And Joan Armatrading’s original compositions bring genuine musical interest into a score that also folds in its own Chess-based surprises, all forging a new interpretation of The Tempest that can stand proudly with any of recent years and which gives the likes of Ronald Harwood the middle finger he so richly deserves.
Running time: 2 hours (without interval)Booking until 17th December, in rep with Julius Caesar and Henry IV