8/1/2020 JULIUS CAESAR / HENRY IV / THE TEMPEST BroadwayHD / Donmar Warehouse
BARD IS THE NEW BLACK
“One of the most important theatrical events of the past 20 years” -- The Guardian
We are in an arena-shaped performance space in a London Prison for Women. The inmates are working time off their sentences by learning Shakespeare, by performing Shakespeare, by letting the rigors of incarceration inform and sub-textualize Shakespeare. Welcome to the Donmar Warehouse productions of three classic Shakespeare works (Julius Caesar 2012, Henry IV* 2014, The Tempest 2016), all directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!), all starring Dame Harriet Walter (The Spanish Princess, The Crown) and a remarkable slate of actresses (see array below). The “Trilogy” was filmed and broadcast by the BBC in 2018, and those films are now available from BroadwayHD.
And, to be blunt, watching them in sequence is a meta-experience that moves, inspires, dazzles, and reminds us why these plays are timeless, reminds us how creative concepts can illuminate corners of the text we never imagined, remind us of when the music of Shakespeare’s language becomes a rapturous joy for performer and audience in equal measure.
In researching these productions, I learned something I suspected but never had verified – the tradition of producing Shakespeare with a strict literal portrayal of gender and era is a relatively modern conceit. We know, of course, that Elizabethan stages were an exclusively male preserve; we have paintings and sketches from various eras – Restoration, 18th Century, Victorian – in which, no matter the play, the actors were dressed in the style of the period. So, the argument can be made -- and WAS made by director Phyllida Lloyd in a podcast from the Folger Library – that making the cast one gender and dressing them in contemporary clothing is actually a more traditional approach.
That they are dressed in the hoodies and sweats of prison inmates actually gives them an androgynous aura, just as making them women who have been denied their freedom gives them an angry energy that drives all three plays, that gives them opportunities for conceptual leaps and design brilliance that feeds our “willing suspension of disbelief.” I found it natural (and EASY) to accept them in these roles, in these stories, to follow them as they led us through these stories.
It should be noted at his point the production started with Dame Walter “running out of female Shakespearean roles” to play, and wishing she could sink her incredible talents into a Brutus, and to bring along as many of her female colleagues as possible – it’s a statistical reality that men get twice as many jobs with Shakespeare as women (and that’s a generous estimate). But when they work-shopped the productions at Holloway Prison in London, they realized the impact the plays, the characters had on the inmates, and the prison motif became less a “conceit” and more of a “driving necessity,” even going so far as to cast prisoners as part of the ensemble, prisoners who felt so at home with the characters and the language that I challenge any of you to go through the array below and (with no IMDB-cheating) pick which are experienced actors and which are (ex?) inmates.
The prison motif finds its way into all three productions in so many ways – props and costumes only what can believably be found (“inside”) – Prospero’s “feast” being commissary candy bars for example (staged in what appears to be the prison cafeteria and whisked away on cue by klaxons and guards and fluorescent down light); props and crowns and such made from cola cartons and trash bags and other detritus of prison life. Each play begins with the cast being “perp-walked” onto the stage with the story being introduced by one of the inmates who gives her own “backstory” (Jade Anouka (Antony) for Caesar, Claire Dunne (Prince Hal) for Henry IV. And Dame Walter herself (Prospero) for Tempest). Caesar and Henry both end with “lockdown” interruptions resulting from the more-than violent scenes at the climaxes of those plays. The Tempest ends on a more melancholy note due to Dame Walter’s lifer character, which is why this play should be watched last.
It is also a pleasure to watch these actors play so many characters, often in the same play. Claire Dunne, for example, makes for not only a passionate Portia in Caesar, but also a scheming Octavius Caesar who very believably will one day be the Emperor Augustus. She then turns around in Henry IV to be a truly callow Prince Hal complete with head music and nose candy who “breaks forth like the sun” when it’s time to join his father against Hotspur. Speaking of Hotspur, Jade Anouke is a ball of energy and fire, echoing her Mark Antony to some extent, but then going on to be a truly magical Ariel, a spirit who runs the gamut from full-pouted petulance to exuberant ecstasy, to joyous glee at her own machinations and accomplishments. Other contrasts are equally impressive -- Jackie Clune as Caesar and Stephano, Karen Dunbar is a heavily-accented Casca and Bardolph and Trinculo, and Sophie Stantin as Falstaff and Caliban.
But it is Dame Harriet Walter who truly excels in this trilogy, as Brutus, as Henry IV, as Prospero. Looking very androgynous with “lean and hungry”** sunken cheeks and close-cropped hair, she brings to each role – and to her lifer prisoner who isn’t afraid to drop character to swear at her fellow inmates or to the intrusive guards – an authority, an anger, a depth of feeling that brings them all to life. I especially applaud her Prospero (and her decision to play the role male), especially her sense of power and control, and her rueful regret when the lights go to blue and Ariel cues an amazing effect with the audience for the “this rough magic I here abjure” monologue. And his “forgiveness” of his enemies is not as complete as is usually played. She retains the anger, the sense of betrayal, with the final scenes with his enemies being delivered through gritted teeth. This is not a Kum-Ba-Yah moment and nor will it be a pleasant sea voyage home.
Ms. Lloyd directs all with a sure hand for pace and character and venue, brilliantly using the audience as characters (Caesar’s assassination scene, the Tempest Party scene, the aforementioned visually stunning Prospero monologue). Her use of framing-story interruptions and allusions, contemporary music, fourth-wall breakdowns, moody musical interludes, and transitions are all elegantly realized and integral to the success of the project; even the camera work seems to have been meticulously planned and executed. Ms. Lloyd and Dame Walter have worked together often before and apparently have a symbiotic actor-director dynamic that colors all three productions and makes them soar.
This month has been especially fertile with all-female Shakespeare, with a YouTube stream of the Globe’s All-BIPOC female Richard II available (and I still may write a piece on that impressive production). Seeing these plays is like hearing a familiar song, given new life by an innovative cover artist. They bring a female anima to what can be very male-centric, male-DEFINING plays and, in so doing, shows the shallowness, the hollowness of traditional gender roles. And it doesn’t hurt that ALL these productions can only be described as works of passionate genius. I couldn’t recommend them more!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #DonmarWarehouse #BroadwayHD #FemaleShakespeareTrilogy)
* Henry IV is Shakespeare’s Part 1 with a few Part 2 scenes included so it ends with Hal’s ascension to the throne and denunciation of Falstaff. The “lockdown” interruption at the end gives us the suggestion that the cast was ready willing and able to plow through ALL of Part 2.
** So, yes, when Caesar uses this phrase to describe Cassius, Martina Laird gets a lot of comic reaction mileage due to her semi-plus sized stature.
Phyllida Lloyd and All-Female Shakespeare from the Folger Library Website: