The Tempest completes director Phyllida Lloyd's impressive trilogy of all-female productions, which began with Julius Caesar in 2012 and continued with Henry IV . Harriet Walter (previously Brutus and Henry IV) is once again in the lead as Prospero, with Jade Anouka (previously Hotspur) as Ariel. The move from the tiny Donmar theatre in Covent Garden to the much larger four-sided King's Cross Theatre, a temporary structure, means the actors are now miked up, but otherwise the production loses nothing in intimacy and power.
The framework is once again a women's prison, but in this third play Shakespeare's story seems to come alive and transcend its setting in a way that the other two did not. The Tempest is not just about power, violence and manipulation; it's a many-layered story about love and reconciliation as well, with moments of tenderness that Lloyd and her designer Bunny Christie manage to develop in original ways.
From the moment Walter introduces herself as a lifer named Hannah, we are simultaneously inside the metallic cage of a prison and inside Prospero's cell. I had never realised before how much Shakespeare's text plays around with the concepts of freedom and imprisonment. The essential insight is that Prospero is both prisoner and jailer, an ambiguity which Walter, with her long Shakespearean experience, exploits to the full. 'My liberty' is what Ariel desires most, and so does Prospero, but the ruler of the island can only achieve it by renouncing his magic powers. This is one of the reasons why The Tempest is a much more subtle and rewarding play than Julius Caesar.
Lloyd's production runs just under two hours, with a few cuts and some slight additions to the text. The opening storm scene is delivered briefly as a deafening soundscape of prison noise. Prison warders interrupt the action. Caliban is a bag lady, trailing plastic rubbish, for whom no prospect of freedom is in sight. Ferdinand (Sheila Atim) and Miranda (Leah Harvey) form a touching same-sex couple, and the moment their betrothal celebrations are suddenly interrupted with 'Our revels now are ended' turns into the climax of the play, with some breathtaking and original design moments. The most poignant twist comes at the very end, when Prospero/Hannah remains incarcerated while Ariel and the others shed their drab prison tracksuits and are set free.
Having recently seen Matthew Dunster's Imogen , somewhat out of place at Shakespeare's Globe, I feel there are interesting comparisons to be drawn. Both productions are innovative reinventions of late Shakespeare plays, which successfully transplant his stories into 2016. For lovers of dramatic irony, there are some important differences between the two plays. In Imogen/Cymbeline, the audience mostly knows what is going on, while the characters blunder around in ignorance. In The Tempest, it is Prospero who knows what is happening and controls it through Ariel, while the audience is usually a step behind.