How far we’ve come. Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Shakespeares were dismissed as “gimmicky” (and worse) four years ago. Today, gender-blind casting is not the norm, but normalized: “King Lear,” “Henry V,” and “Hamlet” have all been played by women. Change has hoisted the change-maker, though, and Lloyd’s trilogy, set in a women’s prison, is stuck with a framing device it no longer needs. As such, its concerns have grown from gender to justice. “The Tempest,” its final installment (now at the Donmar Warehouse and due at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse in January), reflects on the politics of imprisonment, and Harriet Walter’s wronged and world-weary Prospero becomes an exile with no hope of parole.
The project was never simply gender-blind. Lloyd’s cast plays women playing men — prisoners performing Shakespeare behind bars. We watch through layers and see his plays through their eyes — their takes on conspiracy against Julius Caesar and on Henry IV’s civil war, on powerful politicians and sidelined wives. Rather than goodies and baddies, they see rivalrous equals. Violence isn’t immediately condemned, nor are heroes automatically esteemed. The moral complexity shoots up.
This time around, those layers are muddied. The space is partly to blame. Rather than a prison serving as a theater, the Donmar’s new pop-up space is a theater dressed as a prison. Its stage is a scuffed gymnasium floor; rusted metal caging runs round the seats. The difference is fine, but fatal. Rather than prisoners playing Shakespeare, we see actors playing prisoners — especially when “The Tempest” breaks its own rules. Adding high-tech elements to handmade props, Chloe Lamford’s design gives up the conceit. If prisons had cash for disco balls and projectors, they mightn’t be battling staff shortages and riots. Minor inconsistencies break the spell.
Otherwise, it’s superbly thought through. Each play is introduced by an inmate, and each reflects the prison population. “Julius Caesar” chimes with victims of domestic violence, locked up for lashing out against the oppressors. In “Henry IV,” Clare Dunn plays a young addict playing Prince Hal, his Falstaff always on hand with a baggie. One looks back at the criminal act; the other at the process of change: retribution and rehabilitation. “The Tempest” looks forward to release, or its absence. It frames the prison system politically.
Walter’s prisoner, Hannah, has made her presence felt throughout these plays. She has scolded her peers for going off script, and screamed at guards for shutting them down. Here, she finally introduces herself: a lifer, imprisoned for her part in a politically motivated robbery; a new mother who refused to recognize the court’s authority.
She shares with Prospero as sense of exile, banished by an establishment she sought to challenge. Intelligence has given her status inside, inmates that do her bidding, and she buries herself in books, the source of her strength. But to what end? No parole, no release. Society has done more than disenfranchised her. It has made her disappear.
Perhaps she is proved right. The lords of Milan wash ashore in suits – corrupt city slickers adjusting to island life/life inside. Changed into prison slacks, Jade Anouka’s Ariel spins memories of their old lavish lifestyles — fast cars and plush restaurants. Sophie Stanton’s simplistic Caliban plods ‘round the island collecting plastic waste — the offshoot of such lifestyles.
Prison, by contrast, can be a shelter — perhaps even a space for Gonzalo’s utopian commonwealth. As Sheila Atim’s gangly Ferdinand falls for Leah Harvey’s sunbeam Miranda, it’s proof that love remains possible, no matter how frugal the wedding. It is only dreams of the outside world — of jet-set lifestyles and luxury brands — that intrude.
Detention is always an active decision. Freedom, too. Where Ariel’s is granted by Prospero, Caliban’s is not. Lloyd implies that our justice system is no less arbitrary, and no less prone to abuse or power play. Who stays, who goes — who decides? Lloyd’s ending is particularly poignant. One by one, the women go free, each bidding Hannah farewell as they leave, thanking her, praising her, wishing her strength. Walter sits on her cell bed, alone, as Stanton’s uncomprehending inmate slowly waxes the floor. Both are kept in by the state, one deemed a danger, the other an inconvenience. It’s a simple stage picture with a powerful point: Theater speaking up for the truly disenfranchised.