Shakespeare Trilogy review – Donmar's phenomenal all-female triumph

King’s Cross theatre, London
A new staging of The Tempest crowns Phyllida Lloyd’s captivating trio set in a women’s prison

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What a difference four years make. When Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female version of Julius Caesar, set in a women’s prison, premiered at the Donmar in 2012, cross-gender casting was still perceived by some as a novelty, and theatre’s feminists were only stirring. By the time the second production in the trilogy, Henry IV, opened in 2014, research carried out for Tonic Theatre’s Advance programme had highlighted the shocking gender inequality on Britain’s stages and Maxine Peake was playing Hamlet in Manchester.

Now, as a pared-down version of The Tempest completes the trilogy – in which each filleted production is remarkable, but when seen consecutively are utterly extraordinary – there is a growing critical mass of gender-blind casting. Glenda Jackson is playing King Lear at the Old Vic and Anna Francolini is Captain Hook at the National Theatre, where Tamsin Greig will soon play Malvolio.

Invigorating … the cast of Julius Caesar.
Invigorating … the cast of Julius Caesar. Photograph: Helen Maybanks

It’s not solely about gender. Lloyd’s production – with its clever framing device in which the women in the prison are putting on the plays and in the process discovering themselves – is a glorious reminder that genuine diversity on stage offers astonishing creative benefits. Everyone on stage looks different, sounds different and uses their body differently. Yes, it’s a hotchpotch, but a thrilling one. There’s not a character here who isn’t sharply defined, from Jackie Clune’s gangland-style Julius Caesar to newcomer Leah Harvey, who is a tiny, eerie tricycle-riding Soothsayer in Julius Caesar, a vivid, athletic Earl of Douglas in Henry IV and an appealingly direct Miranda in The Tempest.

Even the way the cast approach the text is fascinating. Harriet Walter is mesmerising in one play after another, bringing her classical training to bear as a conflicted Brutus, then a Henry IV who wears his crown heavily, and finally a Prospero who knows that the steel bars of prison are resistant to all magic. Sheila Atim – a glorious, giddy Ferdinand and a moving Lady Percy – frequently seems to be physically stabbing the text as much as speaking it, and Jade Anouka – as captivating as a kick-boxing Hotspur as she is as Ariel – makes each word sound like fresh-minted street poetry.

Fascinating approach to the text … Harriet Walter as Prospero in The Tempest.
Fascinating approach to the text … Harriet Walter as Prospero in The Tempest. Photograph: Helen Maybanks

When Caliban observes that “the isle is full of noises”, it has never seemed truer. This is an evening full of music and song. Lady Percy, who has just zipped her fumbling war-hero husband into his armour, sings him off to his death with Glasvegas’s Daddy’s Gone. Joan Armatrading supplies a bubbling score for The Tempest. But the trilogy is at its very best when the plays sing off each other, and the play-within-the-play device speaks to a wider world.

It’s impossible in the light of recent events not to see a touch of Donald Trump as the Rome crowd cheer a baby-kissing Caesar. The Tempest lightly highlights both ecological disaster and the way dreams have been commodified. Henry IV is a meditation not just on the responsibilities of power but also the destructive potential of swaggering male machismo.

The isle is full of noises … Jade Anouka as Ariel with the company of The Tempest.
The isle is full of noises … Jade Anouka as Ariel with the company of The Tempest. Photograph: Helen Maybanks

The all-female casts and prison setting make you see the three plays afresh. The double focus of seeing them through the lives of the prisoners playing the characters is invigorating. Hal’s journey in Henry IV is seen in the light of the fact that the woman playing her is getting out shortly. It makes the rejection of Falstaff doubly charged. Clare Dunne as Hal and Sophie Stanton as Falstaff play the moment heartbreakingly.

By the end, as Walter sits alone in her cell, you can’t help weeping for the lives lost to the injustices of our prison system and the way we all make prisons for ourselves. This is genuinely art to enchant.

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Lyn Gardner

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