Review: Phyllida Lloyd's SHAKESPEARE TRILOGY at the Donmar Warehouse, King's Cross Theatre

I was excited for this trilogy of all-female Shakespeare plays directed by Phyllida Lloyd from the moment they were announced: there's something about immersive experiences in the theatre that really captivate me and this one set inside an all-women's prison was no exception. It was a unique and harrowing double-layered theatrical experience that made me see Shakespeare in a new light.

When you first enter into the new Donmar King's Cross, you kind of feel like you're being put inside of a steel container. And then an alarm goes off and the "prisoners" are marched through the crowds into the auditorium and when they're gone, all ticket holders are asked to follow into the waiting bay. You're sent to the end of the room that is specified on your ticket and you're then greeted by a guard on a podium explaining the standard theatre safety procedures to you. You're then told to to enter the theatre and then wait for the performance to begin. The experience is a fantastic example of when a double-layered meaning works well and seeing the affect that performing these Shakespeare plays has on the real lives of these "prisoners" is very powerful.

JULIUS CAESAR

The first production in the lineup is Julius Caesar in a version that was originally performed at the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden back in November 2012. This is arguably the best of the three plays and highlights the ties between the Shakespeare story and the story of the women in the prison the best. It's a story about fighting for power and restoring justice in the name of the greater good, as well as team work and family. I wasn't a fan of the play before but I most certainly am one now.

Harriet Walter gives a fantastic portrayl as Brutus and it's a perfect introduction to how her prison inmate character works. She is a woman who - by the end of the day - you learn is the mother figure of all of the other women in the prison and Brutus's complexity and struggle is the perfect parallel to that struggle of a mother. Jackie Clune also gives a fantastic performance as Caesar herself , a total flip on roles I've seen clips of her doing before like Mrs Wilkinson in Billy Elliot. Her character is butch, rude and aggressive and she gives Caesar that power he deserves and is best known for. Perhaps the stand out in this play though was Martina Laird as Cassius, the most understandable character in the piece and definitely the one you empathised with the most. Laird plays the brother (/sister?) to Walter's Brutus and does so perfectly, making me fall in love with her and her performances for the rest of the day.

The design on this play was probably the best out of the three as well. The always fantastic Bunny Christie managed to bring the feeling of a war zone into this theatrical prison beautifully, not making it too in-your-face, but enough so that you get a fell for it and the parallels that a battle zone has with the all-women's prison. It's a beautiful, harrowing and raw piece of theatre and if you were to go and see any of the plays on their own, this is the one to go and see.


HENRY IV

Henry IV is one of my least favourite Shakespeare plays and its no surprise that I wasn't a big fan of this version of the piece either. There is something about the story that I find incredibly boring and dragged out and unfortunately, this piece fell to the curse of that for me. However, I am well aware that many people have seen this production of the play - either at the Donmar King's Cross this past month or at the Donmar Covent Garden back in October 2014 - and absolutely loved it, but it just wasn't for me. This play about a struggle for power and the throne simply failed to keep me entertained for the full two hours and as a result, I was glad it was over when it was.

This has nothing to do with the cast though as they are the best thing about this play. Clare Dunne takes centre stage in this play as Prince Hal, son to Harriet Walter's Henry IV. She is entertaining and gripping to watch, but also manages to make Prince Hal seem childish and naive like he is supposed to be. In contrast, Walter's performance of Henry IV is assertive and dominating just like it should be, perhaps even bordering scary. While it's her smallest role out of the three plays in regards to stage time, it's most definitely her most powerful and underrated. She manages to make Henry a gender-less entity, simply existing as a human being with emotions as opposed to being defined by his masculinity or - in this occasion - femininity and that's what makes these plays so good. Despite the characters being men, they work at their best when you simply focus on their intentions and inner-workings regardless of their sex and Walter has managed to blur those lines expertly with her portrayal as Henry IV here. It's sublime and is the most redeeming feature for me.

The design of this piece is perhaps the most artistic out of the three plays. Bunny Christie returns to work on this piece with the help of Ellen Nabarro and her use of masks and recycled-style props and set pieces work perfectly and are an effective way to remind the audience that this is meant to be a group of women in prison performing the play. The same has to be said about Deborah Andrews's costume design and while this isn't my favourite play out of the three, all of the performances are stellar.


THE TEMPEST

While the other two plays in this lineup are basically re-stagings of productions that have been done before, The Tempest is the latest and final play to be added to Phyllida Lloyd's Shakespeare Trilogy and it's incidentally one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, but it's definitely the most understated of the three. The story follows Prospero and his daughter Miranda as they learn to handle and work with the sea and again, the characters in the Shakespeare play echo the women in the prison perfectly.

Harriet Walter's performance as Prospero is her most understated of the three, but it is definitely the most significant one to her prison character. The story is about a father saying goodbye to his daughter and letting her go and we know that Walter's inmate character went through that when she said goodbye to her child for a lifetime in jail at the start of the play. We also know it's indicative of the character because when the play ends, we see all of the other inmates saying goodbye to Walter as she lies in her bed at night. It's affecting and moving and while it's not her most mind-blowing performance of the three, it's definitely necessary. Leah Harvey makes a fantastic turn as Miranda in this piece and Sheila Atim is great alongside her as Ferdinand, both playing these amazingly captivating lovers that you really warmed to. Jade Anouka is fantastic throughout the three plays, but she's at her best in The Tempest as Ariel who is both hilarious and lovable, with the same to be said about Sophie Stanton as Caliban.

Chloe Lamford's design for this production is extremely minimal, but it works for a piece that is almost entirely set at sea. When you enter the theatre, you're given a torch to use in the piece and when they're used, it's a great moment of interaction between the audience and the play and is another intelligent way to remind the audience that they are meant to be inside a prison watching a group of inmates perform these plays for their own pleasure. It was subtle but effective - just like this play itself - but it was very enjoyable nonetheless.

No comments