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Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film 2

83. Phyllidia Lloyd’s The Tempest (Part 3 of The Donmar Warehouse’s All-Female Shakespeare Trilogy), 2019

I have a fondness for prison theater. When Beckett directed a trilogy of his plays at San Quentin in 1985, he found actors who embodied his existential tragicomedies with an ease few professional actors could muster. Those productions were much more successful on an artistic level than the Broadway production of Godot I saw about a decade ago, in which Studio 54 was filled with an audience fawning over every breath Nathan Lane took. It wasn’t Nathan Lane’s fault as an actor, but rather his fault as a beloved Broadway icon’s fault. He could have been performing a passion play and the audience would have deemed it cute.

I have written about the documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars, in which prisoners with serious crimes in their pasts wrestle with similar themes in The Tempest. With any good documentary about a production, though, there is some disappointment that watching the performance itself isn’t an option.

I love theater. 

I don’t know if I have expounded my theory about watching theater and film in this blog, dear readers, but here it is in case I haven’t. 

Too much is made of the difficulty of Shakespeare, especially in high school and college classrooms in which the bard is perversely read rather than witnessed, or if witnessed, usually with a film so dusty and antiquated that students are conditioned to loathe the experience all the more. (Olivier’s Hamlet or any of the BBC’s Complete Shakespeare is a suicidal point of entry.) 

Any good performance of a play makes that text come alive the way it was intended to. Imagine a cult of people who sit around only reading a screenplay of The Matrix rather than watching the movie. Such a thing can be done; doing so more than once a year will transform one into a hipster.. When I have shown undergraduates Michael Hoffman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, after 10 minutes they are watching it as if it were any other good movie. When I attended a matinee of Romeo and Juliet at Orlando Shakespeare Theater surrounded by mostly high school students, they understood the play perfectly.

What to make, though, of a film of a theatrical performances of Shakespeare half-set in prison?

The Donmar Warehouse’s All-Female Shakespeare Trilogy comprises three films of theatrical productions in a warehouse space, something akin to a black box gym. These shows were performed in 2016, and released on film later.

Donmar Tempest 5

The framing device used for all three films is a prison context. Guards somberly march in the prisoners who will be the actors. Then, one prisoner-actor performs a testimonial about her crime, and her hope or lack thereof for her future. Then, the play begins. Much of the discourse about these productions indicates that they are set in a prison, but the prison is more of a meta-setting. It’s not Prospero in prison—instead, it is Hannah, played by veteran actor Harriet Walter. At times in the play, the prison frame intrudes into the action with a jolt, such as the guards demanding the shipwrecked nobles of The Tempest to strip down out of their suits. That wouldn’t happen in a prison production of Twelfth Night. The reality of the play shifts in this production.

Donmar Tempest 3

Ariel causing a tempest.

There are some upsides to this prison-as-meta-setting—and I apologize for how fucking academic all this sounds, but please believe me, I am using this jargon specifically, to save us some agony here:

  1. The all-female cast doesn’t need any more explanation. If you’ve read much of this column, dear readers, then you know I like nontraditional casting, but dislike distracting color- and gender-blind casting. Give me half a reason to believe in your non-traditional casting, and I will. The Donmar Trilogy made me forget that this is an all female cast instantly. This provided a kick-ass opportunity for women to play leads in Shakespeare. 
  2. The plain costumes, lots of grey sweats, make these productions seem urgently primal, both modern and ancient.
  3. The basic special effects and props require the emotional buy-in from the audience—one can sense from these films how theater is a fun collaboration between performers and audience.
  4. The strange dislocations of the setting are actually a welcome distraction for an audience overfamiliar with Shakespeare’s work. I imagine The Donmar Trilogy would be a bumfuzzling introduction to these plays (“What the hell is happening?”), but to Shakespeare junkies, the weirdness makes these classics feel new. 

Okay, I am over 700 words deep and haven’t even mentioned The Tempest yet.

Donmar Tempest 4

Harriet Walter kicks ass as Propsero. When Helen Mirren played the role in Julie Taymor’s film, I couldn’t see what she was trying to do; she seemed medically sedated. Harriet Walter makes the dialogue seem both natural and appropriate, and can convey so much magic through her gaze and the sound of her voice. She wears a gray tank top, and there is so much perfection in her muscles and wrinkles. She is a woman who has gained power through her age, it seems.

Donmar Tempest 1

Jade Anouka is a wonderful Ariel—her singing voice is beautiful, and jumps around singing styles so well. One of the island’s spellbound sequences was presented as a carnivale outpouring of excitement.

As I learned from Lisa Wolpe’s one woman show in which she portrayed Romeo, any great actor can play any part. The Donmar Trilogy reinforces this idea, as the actual gender of the actors seems like an afterthought (even when the guards call the actors ladies). 

Donmar Tempest 2

Race is an afterthought. These characters emerge so forcefully from these actors that it seems almost like the most perfect way to experience the story. Love is love. Betrayal is betrayal. Family is family.

The play moves along quickly, which is a relief, since The Tempest doesn’t have great villains. Prospero really is never not in control of everything. The strength of the ending is the teetering emotions of Prospero, who forgives his usurping brother, which does not require the repentance of that brother.

The prison setting ends the play with a surprise: Prospero may leave the island to return to Milan, but Hannah (the actor-character Harriet Walter portrays) will never be paroled, and as the other actors are released and say their goodbyes with a voiced-over babel, Hannah will remain, sitting resignedly in bed, with only a book for company.

The irony of this production is that so much energy and discipline went into making the play unique, yet the result is a perfectly transparent story, much like the first time I watched The Tempest, which is a gift I am grateful for.


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John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.