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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
THE TEMPEST
at St. Ann’s Warehouse

BARD BEHIND BARS
By MATT WINDMAN

  Leah Harvey and Sheila Atim/ Ph: Teddy Wolff

An exotic and remote island inhabited by magic spirits is turned into a grim-looking prison gym in Phyllida Lloyd’s vigorous, concept-driven, all-female production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest starring Harriet Walter. A co-production between the Donmar Warehouse and St. Ann’s Warehouse, it is currently playing a limited run at the DUMBO venue.

This in-the-round, intermission-less staging (in which audience members are arranged by prison block and sit on hard plastic chairs) completes director Lloyd’s trilogy of Shakespeare plays set in a women’s prison and performed with a punk aesthetic. Lloyd, who is best known for directing the international smash Mamma Mia!, has effectively turned the Elizabethan tradition of all-male troupes performing Shakespeare on its head. The ensemble acting has been extraordinary throughout the entire trilogy, which also included Julius Caesar and Henry IV.

In each part of the trilogy, the prisoners enact the plays with household items and grey uniforms under the constant supervision of guards. Lloyd never clearly explains why the women are performing the plays, but they seem to serve as cathartic exercises, letting the women express the anger stemming from their present confinement and the circumstances that led to their confinement. With that in mind, the trilogy makes a great case for the burgeoning practice of introducing Shakespeare to men and women behind bars.

The prison concept does not always serve the plot of The Tempest, and the comic interludes with Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo fall flat here. But it emphasizes the play’s inherent themes of physical dislocation and overcoming destructive anger. As the production begins, Walter (who gives an androgynous and authoritative performance) introduces herself as Hannah, a 66-year-old woman serving a lengthy sentence for serving as a getaway driver in a robbery that resulted in multiple deaths.

After Hannah picks up a book, tumult ensues and she takes on the role of Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, who was cheated out of his title and land by a nefarious brother and has lived for 12 years in isolation on the island with his daughter Miranda. Prospero uses supernatural powers to shipwreck his brother and the other royal figures that conspired against him and bring them to his island. Prospero proceeds to trick them and shame them until he is ready to make peace. Unlike Prospero, who gets to return to civilization, Hannah will remain in prison, but experiencing the play empowers her and aids her emotionally.

Now that Lloyd’s trilogy is ending, it would be nice to see more all-female or gender-blind productions of Shakespeare, but they do not necessarily need to be tied down to an experimental concept. Just getting to see great actress taking on roles like Hamlet, Macbeth and so forth is more than enough justification. How about Meryl Streep as a Trump-style Richard III at Shakespeare in the Park?

 


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