“The Tempest” (Photo provided by BroadwayHD.)
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By Lauren Emily Whalen
In the past decade, many productions of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest have featured a woman in the role of Prospero, an exiled duke and sorcerer with one human daughter, two otherworldly servants and a giant bone to pick with his brother. Vanessa Redgrave and Helen Mirren are among the groundbreakers, and in 2016, Dame Harriet Walter (Downton Abbey, The Crown, Succession) joined the lineup. While some Tempests rely on elaborate visuals and stage magic to convey the dark fairy tale of isolation and redemption, director Phyllida Lloyd’s interpretation strips the story down to its essence with unforgettable results.
Lloyd’s Tempest, featuring Walter and a diverse all-female cast, is the third in the Donmar Warehouse trilogy. Originating in London and later staged in Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse, the trilogy began with Julius Caesar in 2012, continued with Henry IV in 2014 and concluded with 2016’s The Tempest. Walter starred in each production, along with roughly the same ensemble – and in addition to their Shakespearean characters, all portrayed inmates in a women’s prison. Lloyd and company researched their real-life counterparts and presented the plays to girls and women at schools and prisons throughout the United Kingdom. All three productions were filmed in 2016, in a temporary theater-in-the-round built specifically for this purpose.
Setting The Tempest in prison – as Margaret Atwood also did in her stunning 2016 novel Hag-Seed – is a bold but effective choice. Every character is trapped, from Prospero’s virginal teenage daughter Miranda (Leah Harvey) to native creature-turned-slave Caliban (Sophie Stanton), to Prospero’s estranged brother Antonio (Carolina Valdés) now stranded on the island thanks to a storm raised by Ariel (Jade Anouka), a sprite rescued by Prospero only to become his servant. In essence, Prospero has the power to set everyone free, but that won’t happen until the sorcerer can liberate himself from his personal grudges. Thanks to a simple but powerful framing device, the audience learns that Walter’s Prospero is a woman serving a life sentence, who now has nothing but time to contemplate her checkered past and uncertain future.
But the angry desperation that leads to Prospero’s unspeakable acts, fuels joy in those around him. Miranda falls for marooned prince Ferdinand (Sheila Atim), and the two marry in a heartbreakingly beautiful sequence. Though Ariel doesn’t yet have his freedom, he revels in making mischief through song and dance. And when the play concludes, the inmate playing Prospero makes peace with her lot in life, watching various comrades come and go.
This Tempest is interesting to view during this unique time in American history, when a deadly virus is sweeping the nation, our leaders are various stages of competent and most of us feel, in some form or another, stuck. However, Lloyd’s directorial choices along with the stellar performances of Walter and company make the Donmar Trilogy’s final installment one for the ages.
As The Tempest illustrates with a fine hand, both literal and figurative confinement bring the time to think, to reckon, to plan what we will do when doors once again open. Maybe this time, we’ll be better.
Available for streaming on BroadwayHD.
Like this? Consider Henry IV, also starring Harriet Walter.
The Tempest flashback: Check out our interview with Matthew Steffens, who appeared in the Metropolitan Opera’s version back in 2012.