A commonly cited piece of evidence that sexism is a major force in today’s world is that women must work harder for longer, for less pay, and with extraordinary focus and talent in order to be seen as equal to men. In the theatrical world, unconscious biases against women are arguably a factor in the obvious gender gap in pay and roles available for women, and even more blatantly for actors of colour. Perhaps the most blatant (unconscious) bias of all is that there are significantly fewer women’s roles in Shakespeare’s work, and as a result, women performing and producing Shakespeare must carve out new spaces for themselves, and defend their right to do so through the work they produce.
This is the backdrop against which director Phyllida Lloyd and actor Harriet Walter produced their all-female performed Shakespeare Trilogy. The result at the Donmar’s temporary site in King’s Cross is an extraordinary testament to the endurance, talent, and skill that women performers have, and the conditions that women artists must create in so that they can thrive.
The trilogy is nothing short of a firework display of the cast’s virtuosity. The actors play semi-biographical characterisations of women prisoners, who in turn are performing various roles in Julius Caesar, Henry IV (a truncated version of parts 1 and 2), and The Tempest – all in one day. (Lord of the Rings movie marathons have nothing on this.) Phyllida Lloyd and Harriet Walter’s creative partnership with Clean Break, a theatre company that makes work based on women’s experiences of the prison system, have culminated in a beautifully complex work of art.
In the morning, the blaring prison alarm signals the start of Julius Caesar, meaning it is time for the prison guards to emerge, line the audience members up into our corresponding seat blocks, and lead us through a narrow corridor into the black box setting of the prison recreation area. As the guards lead in the prisoners, dressed in grey sweat pants and zip-hoodies, they command the women to take their places. A prisoner played by Jade Anouka nervously reads from a scrap of paper, introduces the project to us, and explains that each play was selected because of the way it resonated with some of the women.
For Anouka, Julius Caesar is about fighting back against injustice, and the familiar consequences when fighting back against abuse is done through manslaughter. What unfolds is a brutal staging of Julius Caesar with the actors playing swaggering, over-confident and violent men of power. Anouka gives Marc Antony’s infamous speech while lying face-down on the floor at gunpoint, slowly snaking her rhetoric into the ears of her opponents until she is not only upright, but leading an orchestra of followers into a riot.
We are never allowed to forget that these women are prisoners, though, who have been given a privilege that can all too easily be taken away. A prisoner-actor is removed mid-sentence to be given her medication; a stage fight goes too far, ending up in a nosebleed that pauses the action; most heartbreakingly of all, the guards announce lock-up before the play can finish, and as the women are made to strip their costumes and props in front of the audience. Harriet Walter’s prisoner, Hannah, breaks down in furious tears.
Henry IV is prisoner Rosie’s play: a play for her about change, reformation, and being given a second chance. As a recovering heroin-crack addict, Rosie (played by Clare Dunne) finds herself in Prince Hal’s story. The poignancy of this connection is impactful, but sadly rushed and compromised by the reality that the play needed to be drastically cut down. Hal’s journey away from his addiction to ‘sugar’ to king seems to happen at the drop of a hat rather than in Shakespeare’s graceful (albeit longwinded) story arc.
Instead, the heart-breaking relationship between Hal and Falstaff – with Falstaff as Hal’s drug enabler – takes centre stage. Sophie Stanton’s cockney Falstaff is grotesque, playful and hilarious, darting off into the audience to hide, swaggering and bouncing all over the auditorium. When Hal turns away from Falstaff for the first time, he pushes the small plastic bag of ‘sugar’ away. This moment is also that of Rosie pushing away her own addiction, as well as her friend and enabler. As Prince Hal becomes King Henry V giving his coronation speech, Rosie is using King Henry’s words to banish her enabler, and to chart for herself a new life of honour and dignity. Stanton’s prisoner feels threatened by King Henry, and she discards her costume and bursts into tears, crying ‘You can’t leave, Rosie!’ as once again, the play ends unfinished, with the lights up and the prison guards restraining Falstaff, leading her and the other prisoners out.
The magic of the project fully comes together with The Tempest in the evening. This is Hannah’s play: a political prisoner imprisoned for life without parole. Hannah must reconcile the crimes she committed with the reality that, even though she has reformed in the 34 years that have passed, she will never be free. Hannah’s wisdom and matronly character bleeds into Prospero throughout, and we as an audience are brought into the action, as part of the stage prison. We were each given a small torch, which become our magic wands for aiding Prospero in his rough magicks for breaking his staff and drowning his book.
The show is full of noises, with the tempest itself being the cries and moans of prisoners slamming on the prison doors. Steel drums, trumpets, guitar, haunting harmonies and Anouka’s quick-rapping Ariel mystify the air. The sea is a swirl of plastic and the island itself is littered with mounds of plastic that Caliban is sentenced to gather. The revenge against Antonio is to make him imprisoned like Prospero and Hannah.
The glorious show of magic at Miranda and Ferdinand’s charming wedding feast ranges from the simple pleasures of a single apple and orange, a tray of Crunchie bars, Starbucks coffee, and technicolour quadrille-like dances set to bass-pumping Latin music. But the feast also culminates in possibly the most poignant moment of the entire day: enormous white balloons are brought out and become screens onto which images of the Earth, mountains, rivers, McDonalds, Gucci and windsurfing are projected at a rapid pace. As Miranda and Ferdinand marvel at the wonders of a world that they have never seen, Hannah lets go of Prospero and breaks down into tears. She bursts each balloon one by one, begging to stop the show, and we watch helplessly as Hannah-Prospero takes out her frustration on images of a world she will never be able to see again.
The poetry is equally in the adaptation and in Shakespeare’s words, and the magic is in being able to see the beautiful versatility of this all-women cast. We are given women who play men, swaggering with East London machismo, scratching their asses and picking their nose; men who are genteel, elegant and loving; men who are hilarious and clownish, and women who are forceful, angry, wise, and loving. As the prisoners say their farewells to Hannah at the conclusion of The Tempest, we understand that Shakespeare represents and imitates life, and that this journey has been as much about setting themselves free, as setting Shakespeare free.
The Shakespeare Trilogy is on at the Donmar King’s Cross until 17th December 2016. Click here for more details.