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FringeReview UK 2016

Low Down

With both Julius Caesar and Henry IV productions concurrently revived, Phyllida Lloyd’s Donmar Warehouse/Clean Break all-women Shakespeare trilogy featuring Harriet Walter culminates at the temporary King’s Cross Theatre with The Tempest.


Chloe Lamford takes Bunny Christie’s prison design, reconfiguring for the new space with some lit-up surprises. Joan Armatrading’s score pulses with the isle.


Phyllida Lloyd’s Donmar Warehouse/Clean Break trilogy of all-women Shakespeare culminates at the temporary King’s Cross Theatre with The Tempest. With both previous productions concurrently revived – Julius Caesar and Henry IV (mostly Henry IV/I) – some days are devoted to the trilogy. The Tempest’s pacey at 105 minutes straight through, cut down though fuller than you’d expect, with the warders’ ad-libs stinging and salting less than before, tagging the genre’s nature.


Chloe Lamford takes Bunny Christie’s prison design, reconfiguring for the new space allowing certain entrance and exit-points, and a natty line in pencil torches personally issued to the audience, used at a particular one might say illuminating moment. Otherwise a few desks and chairs and at opportune moments a skirl of rubbish, connected bottles and plastic bags does service for sea-wrack, logs and other trash, whilst the Ceres scene, here surprisingly full, boasts its own magic. Joan Armatrading’s score is more than ambient: it pulses with the isle.


Like the prison of Rome in Julius Caesar, The isle-incarcerated Tempest makes more sense in a prison setting than Henry IV, which though stronger than its 2014 premiere has the weakest rationale except that Hal’s shortly to be released whilst Falstaff isn’t. The Tempest, with a certain unevenness has claims to be the strongest certainly linguistically: from the use of ‘cell’ Prospero refers to three times and Trinculo’s oafish head-banging ‘I am in case to justle a constable’ baiting Caliban, who like Falstaff (both played with winning grouchiness by Sophie Stanton) here ends cabin’d cribbed confined as does the lifer Prospero.


For that’s where we start, Hannah the lifer avowedly modelled on a real U.S. political prisoner Judy Clark whose parole might be granted when she’s 107, has an eleven-month-old daughter when imprisoned and Walter’s time so far isn’t the 35 years Clark’s served (Miranda might be a legal sixteen or a little older than her Shakespearean fifteen years), it’s a perfect imagining for the banged-up Hannah, whose light frames a terrible reconciliation. She’s giving witness to what she’s done for rookie inmates. Revenge on those who escaped her fate when themselves brought to the prison is negotiated.


The result here is the profoundest meditation we’ve had yet from this team on prison injustice, the nature of forgiveness, a lacerating acceptance. Walter’s Brutus digs at that role in Julius Caesar and brings an excruciating symmetry to political choice. The rough magic here is deeper than ever plummet sounded (Shakespeare crucially echoes his own phrase curiously with both fathers meditating at different moments on acceptance of loss, both in very different ways illusory).


The storm is an illumination of a prison riot or confined prisoners rattling doors and we cut straight to the ardent newcomer Leah Harvey, both attractively full-throttle teenager and wondrously vulnerable daughter. Illustrating their past Prospero’s able to point to the very protagonists suddenly illumined at various corners, underlining the clarity in this production.


Sheila Atim’s Ferdinand conveys a touch of melancholy; and underlying braggadocio – her verse shoots from the hip or groin when stumbling on Miranda. Their uninhibited rapture, soon interrupted rather guys the Shakespearean obsession with pre-nuptial virginity where Miranda avers she’s certainly a maid and we get Prospero’s virgin-knot speech later. One can only somehow believe that Miranda’s been incarcerated alongside Prospero, suspending our disbelief at teenage sexuality in the 21st century something Atim and Harvey bring an uncomplicated lustiness to, but equally a winning tenderness that underlines their chemistry. It perhaps lacks a continuance of stupefied wonder and awkwardness that some productions bring. Here joyful energy’s ascendant: hewing logs or blank verse, the couple fizz to a bliss consummated afterwards.


Jade Anouka’s Ariel edges discomfort at long service with an underlying love and indeed ‘were I human’ seems to beg a question of this partly human reading, both spright-like and furious in laying out an individual fantasy for each of the courtiers (a nice touch of the prison bars) or of course exploding those dreams (save loyal Gonzalo’s) with monsters, as she effects later with the Caliban trio. Anouka’s lightness and deft pointing dances through this production.


Just as Stanton’s Caliban, who’s here finally unrepentant, unregenerate and fitted for Shiloh Cokes truculent UKIP Sebastian and the Scottish Trinculo Karen Dunbar If we don’t get this subsidiary empty (English Sebastian lording it) their underpants flag it up, Dunbar’s particularly affecting as put-upon bottling bravo. Stanton’s aspirational verse talking of the isle here hits with hopeless melancholy. Most of all Armatrading’s songs are worked out here in this trio’s raucous enchantment.


Of the courtiers, Gonzalo’s Zainab Hassan enjoys real clarity, not more so than when dreaming of a republic (Plato through Montaigne snaffled by Shakespeare) most poignant in a prison. Martina Laird’s Alonso sounds her plummet of loss with a weary finality exhausted of hope or reason, Carolina Valdés’s whippet-like animalism captures a rapacious, rapier-like Antonio, as wiry as Prospero, her darker self, active and malevolent.


Jennifer Joseph as Officer incarnates a gentler prison regime perhaps than the other two in the trilogy; this is a romance and the dynamic’s gentler. Here though she prevents Laird’s Alonso form hanging herself, a startling moment easily overlooked. This marks one of those bleak epiphanies of Clean Break’s initiatives, women’s high rate of suicide in prison; just as iniquitous is the awarding of higher sentences to women than men for violent crimes as Rhona Munro’s Iron reminds us.


The truest magic comes in a sequence starting with Prospero’s requiring ‘as even now I do’ as we’re quietly told to flicker on the pencil torches, in a darkened space. This is as near the heavens as prison walls make. The Masque of Ceres to which Prospero treats the couple isn’t just masked with yellow-clad spirits and at one point break-dancers to Armatrading’s music. It’s a thing of balloons with images projected on them increasingly of material then branded wealth as dreams turn to their own corruption, sunk in a consumer society. Quite how the insubstantial pageant is suborned is a quiet mystery but this is a literal clouding of Hannah/Prospero’s imaginings in cloud-coloured balloons. Here the rationale of the sudden onslaught of enemies Prospero had momentarily forgot is shifted to the consumerism Hannah’s persona is given life for assaulting.


It’s Ariel’s quick delivery of what woes she’s inflicted on these, that shifts the interchange from the split line exchange of ‘were I human/then mine shall’ of the traditional pause and hinge of Prospero’s personal redemption, to the realization that the ‘rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance’. Hannah’s accomplices more guilty than her, are brought within her power. Lloyd’s and Walter’s framing of the prison narrative is never insistent, but pervasive, persuasive and quietly indignant.


Where this leads is miraculous in this context: as the project gathers to a head, of meetings greetings and invectives Prospero prostrates herself cruciform on the ground, does obeisance to her own release. This final act of Walter’s in a reading riven with pained clarity – a conflicted anguish visibly traced on her face – seals the broken majesty of this performance. It’s the pinnacle of the rough magic of a production uneven in its speaking, but fresh, streetwise with animated verse deliveries, vocal range and above all the new-minted, brave new world.


Only Prospero can feel ‘tis new to thee’ with the heart-breaking chorus of farewells to the one lifer, the release pled for here of another order altogether, underscored with the swoosh of a floor polisher.