It takes a committed theatre lover to dedicate an entire day to Shakespeare not matter how good it is likely to be.
Three productions, no intervals, hard, uncompromising seating designed for small children and brusque, po-faced ushers ordering us about like we were visiting a top security prison rather than a pop-up theatre at the back of King’s Cross station.
Oh, hang on, we ARE visiting a top security women’s prison and those intimidating female guards are there to keep both the visitors (audience) and inmates in line. Talk about realism. They are excellent at their job.
London’s Donmar Warehouse has sent its cast and creatives to a 400-seat, purpose-built, performance space designed specifically for its Shakespeare Trilogy.
Three plays – Julius Caesar, Henry IV and The Tempest – are performed by an entirely female cast that is led in each by lifer, Hannah (Harriet Walter) – and directed with gritty realism by Phyllida Lloyd.
And it’s stunning, a triumph of story-telling and artistry, that is brutal, bleak, tragic and emotional. A multi-layered, multi-production, visceral masterpiece that enthrals and makes you laugh out loud in equal measure.
While the craggy-faced Walter gives a tour de force performance as a woman robbed of her daughter and life by the heavy fist of justice, the entire ensemble is magnificent, contributing unforgettable and diverse turns in each of the three shows.
Yesterday the press, excited students, diehard fans of the Bard or Donmar – or both – took up the gauntlet for its trilogy day. All three productions in one day. Were we mad?
By the closure I was stir-crazy but there is no denying the raw power and intensity of all three pieces, performed by “prisoners” as arts therapy while inside.
At the start of each performance the audience is marshalled by a guard and frog-marched into the auditorium where we jump to obey instructions barked at us from staff.
Then the cast is walked into the room by guards and receive their cue.
At the start, and in brief snatches throughout, we glimpse the harsh reality of the situation. This isn’t a theatre but a prison, with caged walls keeping us in, klaxons calling a harsh and sudden end to our enjoyment, and guards on hand should anything kick off.
But we’re safe. The inmates are thrilled that we have come to watch their work. Occasionally they forget what they’re doing and a wrong word or action prompts an explosive outburst that brings intervention by the guards or, indeed Hannah.
You could argue that the director is being overly gimmicky with her overall theme but it works. Each of the three plays mean something very personal to the women inside whether through a character or storyline.
And the gender-swap works too with the entire cast proving how convincing they can be as men.
Walter, looking tired and haunted, now bears more than a passing resemblance to Shakespearean actor Greg Hicks. Karen Dunbar has radically altered her appearance, now with a shaved head, to become a psycho Scot who creates three remarkable performances in each production.
She gives a brilliantly comic turn as the dim-witted Trinculo in The Tempest; is threatening as the murderous Casca in Julius Caesar and returns to comedy as Falstaff’s wonderful stock drunk, Bardolph in Henry VI.
In Julius Caesar Jackie Clune excels as a ballsy, charismatic leader who rallies his troops with a powerful punk opening and, later, in Henry IV, raises a laugh with her role as the pompous Welsh leader, Glendower, confronting Hal in a game of one-upmanship.
Martina Laird, is the committed and loyal Cassius (Caesar) and a noble king in The Tempest while Clare Dunne makes a fiery pregnant Portia and a superb hot-headed reprobate Prince Hal.
I was bowled over by Sophie Stanton’s fabulous heartfelt performance as a corpulent, bobble-hatted East London Falstaff whose out-sized personality dominates Henry IV more so than the troubled relationship between father and sons.
This is a great Falstaff and he/she gets all the best lines, many of which probably didn’t occur to Shakespeare. Looking at the inebriated Bardolph he declares: “He’s a Scot. He’s paranoid that he’s related to Donald Trump!”
Later Stanton is similarly impressive as a simple-minded Caliban in The Tempest.
Jade Anouka and Leah Harvey prove very physical actors, their jail selves probably spending all their free time in the prison gym. Jade makes a lively spirit, Ariel, in The Tempest, and is compelling as the outraged Hostpur and Mark Antony in the other two. Leah is suitably unhinged as the Soothsayer and animated as Prospero’s daughter Miranda.
But the entire triplet production belongs to Harriet Walter. For me the most poignant of the plays was The Tempest, a story of love, loss, transience and betrayal.
It starts off with Hannah – whose character is based on a real prisoner in the US judicial system – briefly telling us that she had spent 35 years in prison for a politically motivated robbery. Her daughter had been 11-months-old at the time.
A highlight of the production is the wedding party of Prospero’s only daughter, Miranda, to Prince Ferdinand (Sheila Atim). It is a brief moment of magic as the stage is filled by white balloons that are used to screen images of luxury, freedom and life outside.
Profound, thought-provoking and compelling. An unmissable day of theatre even if it did result in a crooked back.
The Donmar Warehouse production continues at King’s Cross until December 17.
Donmar Warehouse’s Shakespeare Trilogy is a triumph of story-telling & artistry. A visceral, multi-layered, multi-production masterpiece.