Friday, 9 December 2016

Theatre Review: the Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy

It says a lot about the Donmar Warehouse’s Shakespeare Trilogy that it’s been three weeks (shut up, I’ve been busy) since I spent my Saturday huddled in their temporary, chilly, Kings Cross home and yet I can still remember the productions well enough to write a blog post about them.

The main thing that it says of course is that these productions are exceptional and I loved them to bits. Spoiler alert.

But then is it really a spoiler given the first third of this trilogy, Phyllida Lloyd’s prison-set all female Julius Caesar, is now four years old? And the second third, Phyllida Lloyd’s prison-set all female Henry IV, is two years old. In a shocking development, the new final third of the trilogy is Phyllida Lloyd’s prison-set all female The Tempest. All three utilise the same cast, anchored by the mighty Harriet Walter, and the same technique of framing the plays within the stories of the women prisoners who populate the prison setting. Or to put it another way, the actors are playing prisoners playing the Shakespeare characters; the Shakespeare becomes plays within the plays.

This is one of the too-many-to-list things about these productions that make them so powerful. The interplay between the plays, the fictional actresses playing in them and their stories is incredibly effectively executed and used, intruding on the plays at key moments to up the drama and the emotional ante. Particularly in the second two thirds of the Trilogy the prisoners’ stories intermingle with the Shakespeare with incredible power. I don’t want to go into too much detail, because spoilers, but the moments in Henry IV and The Tempest where the prisoners playing Falstaff and Prospero’s respective realities burst through the play are probably the most impactful moments of theatre I’ve seen this year.

Much is understandably made of the fact that the casts for all three plays in the Trilogy are completely female. Certainly some of the ‘I’m just a weak and feeble woman’ nonsense you almost always get in a Shakespeare play is illuminated by having a woman’s mouth speaking it. But the more interesting point the casting makes is how universal the themes in these plays are. Any person can become a Caesarian demagogue and any person can rebel against them. The gender is entirely unimportant. Of course the women’s prison setting also makes the casting a necessity and as such instantly removes any questions from the audience’s mind about the suitability of women playing these parts, if indeed anyone had any. It’s another way that the setting helps to shine a spotlight on plot and character, and clarify the plays. The two hour run times help also in this regard.

The main thing of note about this cast though is that they are without exception mind blowingly good. Harriet Walter is nothing short of a force of nature as Brutus, Henry IV and Prospero respectively. Prospero is probably the highlight, utilising Walter’s incredible capacity for pathos to conjure something uniquely sad and touching (and making the most of some of Shakespeare’s most interesting and beautiful poetry). Her prisoner character is also the most effectively wrought - and the saddest, a political prisoner on a life sentence with no hope of parole. Her meltdown in The Tempest is awful but amazing to witness. Sophie Stanton is a revelation as Falstaff in Henry IV, funny and sad with an excellent line in Donald Trump jokes (I think these may be additions to the original text…) who, again, works equally hard and delivers the scene of the day in the brief appearance of her prisoner character. Jacky Clune (highlight: a dangerous, magnetic Caesar), Jade Anouka (equally good as Marc Antony, Harry Hotspur and Ariel) and Clare Dunne (highlight: a hypnotic Prince Hal) also standout in what is surely the strongest ensemble in London at the moment. Or at almost any moment in fact.

There are many other awesome things about this production that I’m not going to go into - the brutal, discomforting design, the clever use of lighting, video and music, the fact that the venue and the front of house staff are just lovely - because otherwise we’d be here all day.

Suffice it to say that theatre rarely gets any better than this. The Shakespeare Trilogy is a marvel. I wonder if I’ll ever connect as strongly with the big man than I did watching it?

The Shakespeare Trilogy plays at the King’s Cross Theatre until December 17th. It’s day returns only at this point, but 100% worth queuing for if you can.

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