July 21, 2018, by Peter Kirwan
The Tempest (Donmar/Illuminations) @ BBC iPlayer
In the final entry in Phyllida Lloyd’s Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy, it is Harriet Walter’s turn to take the stand for a testimony at the start of the performance. The oldest prisoner at 66, ‘Hannah’ was the getaway driver for a politically motivated bank robbery which ended with two police officers dead. Refusing to recognise the authority of the court, she was sentenced to life without possibility of parole, and has spent the last 35 years wrestling with the idea of reckoning – and with having missed the life of a daughter who was not quite a year old when she was arrested.
Hannah has spent the trilogy so far managing events, corralling her sometimes-unruly fellow prisoners into the discipline of performance. But The Tempest puts her front and centre for an uncomfortably frank exploration of authority and freedom, in which the framing device of the prison plays its most prominent role yet. As The Tempest begins, the prisoners cry out and bash the cages that surround the audience, a pain felt by Walter’s/Hannah’s Prospero until Leah Harvey’s Miranda snatches a book away from her and brings her back into the prison. From the start, the island is understood as a prison whose bars are forever closed.
The theme is built up subtly throughout, particularly in the treatment of the shipwrecked nobles. Sheila Atim’s besuited Ferdinand is identity-checked on arrival, while Jennifer Joseph’s prison guard (the first time in the trilogy a guard is played by one of the main cast) inducts Alonson, Gonzalo, Antonio and Sebastian into prison life, forcing them to put on uniforms and bathetically responding to their verse with contemporary putdowns and reminders of who is actually in charge. Prospero watches throughout as the newly arrived nobles are subjected to the indignities of newly arrived prisoners, lovingly and scathingly recreated by the prisoner-actors.
As the prison becomes an increasingly oppressive environment, images of freedom become the stuff of torture. In place of the banquet scene, the nobles are put into dream states, imagining experiences of fine dining, of driving a sports car, of being celebrated for their real-world success. Other inmates narrate these experiences through microphones, seductively drawing the nobles into blisslike states of imagination, before they are cruelly ended and Jade Anouka’s Ariel, wearing a judge’s wig, pronounces the doom that separates the men from happiness forever.
But the most important and cruel evocation of freedom comes during the wedding masque, which culminates the touching romance of Miranda and Ferdinand. The wedding begins joyfully, with Miranda and Ferdinand coming together under the protection of a smiling Prospero while the prisoners sing a beautiful, gospel-inflected song of celebration while the lovers collect a platter of Crunchie bars and a KFC family-size bucket; then Walter orders a dance, and the prison becomes a temporary rave. The climax of the masque, however, is the most wonderful, as the in-the-round performance space is filled with large balloons onto which are projected images of the outside world – cars on open roads, meadows, speedboats, a McDonalds logo at which all the prisoners roar in delight. But then, the house lights snap on and Prospero/Hannah begins bursting the balloons, overwhelmed with grief for a freedom she will never experience.
Walter gives a tour de force as Prospero. With the authority earned in building her prisoner character over three productions, she is one of the freest to show emotion with impunity. When she chooses punishment, it is carried out unquestioningly; when she chooses forgiveness, it feels like grace; when she spreads herself on the floor as she forgives Antonio, it is devastating. Her strength throughout makes her choice to show weakness the more profound, and watching Martina Laird’s Alonso break down in contrition at Prospero’s humility is one of the production’s subtler highlights. Prospero is almost desperate for forgiveness, and the brief backstory of her prison persona informs her drive for human connection throughout, that comes together in an extraordinarily moving moment in which Prospero and the nobles all come together holding hands and saying ‘Amen’ at the close – for once, this is a Prospero who has earned forgiveness.
This is not to suggest that the production takes itself too seriously. The production’s energy comes from Anouka’s endlessly entertaining Ariel, who alternates between rapping and singing as she bounces around the stage, manipulating her ‘victims’ and using an effects-laden mic to alter her voice between booming and squeaking. Anouka’s physicality is a joy to watch, especially the quasi-mechanical writhing she does as Prospero refers to her freedom. The relationship between Prospero and Ariel is loving, collaborative; Prospero drawing energy from Ariel’s youth and vitality; Ariel looking up to the older woman.
The comic scenes, meanwhile, are consistently entertaining. Caliban (Sophie Stanton) is responsible for cleaning, and regularly returns to the piles of trash that the prisoners dump onstage at the start of the production, shoveling it up and hiding under it when disturbed (prompting Karen Dunbar’s Trinculo to denounce ‘this Tracey Emin shite’). With Jackie Clune’s Stefano making up the party, the scenes are musical and rambunctious, Dunbar even taking time to address the camera directly when she reflects on how the state totters if the rest of the island is as mad as them. Yet while the tone of these scenes is primarily comic, Stanton’s sympathetic performance as Caliban notes something of the character’s exploitation by others; surrounded by rubbish, humble and nervous, she is easily overlooked.
The creativity of the prisoners allows temporary forgetfulness of the nature of their environment. In a stunning moment (which I suspect works even better on screen, where the blackout seems more total), Prospero’s ‘Ye elves of hills’ is lit by hundreds of torches held by the audience shining from all four sides of the space. The improvised musical groups conducted by Ariel provide beautiful backing throughout, and small uses of outdated technology (Ariel holding up an old-school ghetto blaster to play back Trinculo’s recorded ‘Thou liest’) add to the joy throughout. And that’s perhaps the unexpected thing about this Tempest – that it finds joy in the play.
That joy lends the conclusion its bittersweetness, in a final gambit that pays off the prison conceit and left me, even watching on telly, in tears. As Ariel is freed, Prospero takes off the suit she had donned as Milan, which Ariel takes away, singing as she leaves the stage to her ‘freedom’. After speaking the Epilogue, Prospero is then visited by her daughter, who brings her a copy of Margaret Atwood’s ‘Hagseed’ – a novel that is itself about prisoners putting on a production of The Tempest). Prospero – now unambiguously Hannah – sits down on her bunk to read, and in a beautiful vignette the other members of the ensemble appear, in everyday clothes, at open gates around the auditorium, smiling and waving as recordings of their voices thanking and saying goodbye to Hannah play. As the entire ensemble is covered, it becomes quickly apparent that this is the passage of time as all of Hannah’s friends in the prison leave to resume their civilian lives; Hannah laughs, joy and sorrow intermingled. Then all falls quiet, and all that is left is Hannah – and the prisoner who had played Caliban, quietly hoovering, the two of them alone together in the prison.