Julius Caesar and Henry IV, the first two plays in Donmar Warehouse’s all-female Shakespeare trilogy–all directed by Phyllida Lloyd and starring Harriet Walter–are about authority and official channels for public power: government, the battlefield, the monarchy. The Tempest, the trilogy’s concluding piece, is about a more private, individual, but perhaps even more absolute power–the power of the ruler of a tiny island, Prospero (Walter). This former duke of Milan presides over his minuscule kingdom with a mixture of parental authority–his only human subject, after all, is his daughter, Miranda (Leah Harvey)–and magic; his years of study allow him to command the spirit Ariel (Jade Anouka) and the “monster” Caliban (Sophie Stanton), and to engineer a shipwreck that gets him his revenge on those who usurped his earthly kingdom. But this production, set like the rest of the trilogy in a women’s prison, highlights how limited, how constrained, and how ephemeral that power is.
Harriet Walter plays Prospero through an intermediary character: the convict Hannah, a kind of elder statesman among the prisoners because of the length of her sentence and also because she’s educated, well-spoken, a mentor to the younger women. Hannah, modeled on the American political dissident and convicted bank robber Judith Clark, has been in prison for thirty-five years and is not eligible for parole for another forty. (She was originally sentenced to seventy-five years to life for her part in a bank robbery that killed two police officers.) The other inmates will come and go around her; Hannah remains, her power waxing and waning as those under her influence return to their lives. Hannah forces herself to remain a bit aside from her environment; she has personal relationships and passionate emotions, but she’s keenly aware of the power dynamics in all of them. She dotes on her daughter, delights in Ariel, and forgives her traitorous brother; but at the same time is constantly manipulating, controlling, and dictating the actions of all those around her: testing her daughter’s would-be love, Ferdinand (Sheila Atim); setting trials and tribulations for the nobles and servants of the world that wronged him; directly ordering Ariel and Caliban; spooling out their history to Miranda in measured doses.
The signal feature of Walter’s Prospero is her steely, calculating gaze; Prospero is always watching the action she’s set in motion, controlling but not engaging (Ariel does all the actual legwork). Prospero here comes off as part voyeur, part all-seeing overlord: she participates by watching, fascinated by and protecting herself from the web of social relations, but also surveying her subjects to note their fealty. Those power dynamics are at their most richly fascinating in the relationship between Prospero and Ariel. Anouka’s strength matches Walter’s, but where Walter’s energy is channeled fiercely into control, Anouka’s sparks like a live wire. Ariel is a ball of kinetic energy, constrained by temporary circumstance (prison and her servitude to Prospero) but always with her impending freedom in mind.
Ferdinand and Miranda are desperately, impossibly young here. They seem far too innocent to be in love, let alone in prison, and their love gains extra poignancy with each reminder of their captivity. Sheila Atim’s Ferdinand is gawky, almost clumsy; a boy facing his first adult emotions (grief at the presumed drowning of his father as well as love). You can see every passing emotion flicker across Leah Harvey’s Miranda–not just her face, but her limbs: her trust of her father, her fear of Caliban, her marvel at Ferdinand and the other new arrivals. Their love and sweetness radiates; the company’s dance at their wedding is a bright spot of high-energy joy in a piece that otherwise keeps bringing back grim reminders of institutional power.
By the final scene, Prospero has given away his daughter to her true love, freed his spirit-servant Ariel, broken his magician’s staff, and drowned his spellbook. He is alone, in his cell on his island–pleading to the audience to release him back to the “real” world outside his enchanted isle; pleading for a parole that may or may not be granted for reasons Prospero cannot control. His elaborate revenge is, in the end, something of a trick, a prisoner’s fantasy; none of the evildoers are actually harmed. Prospero sees his daughter grow up and leave him; has genuine affection for Ariel but must free him–and will remain, still a prisoner, still without real-world power. The prison conceit doesn’t always prove effective throughout the course of the play, but it really hits home in The Tempest’s closing moments, which prove resonant and unexpectedly touching.