An exotic and remote island inhabited by magic spirits is turned into a grim-looking prison gym in the Donmar Warehouse’s all-female experimental production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” which is playing a limited run at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO.
This in-the-round, intermission-less staging (in which audience members are arranged by prison block and sit on hard plastic chairs) completes director Phyllida Lloyd’s trilogy of Shakespeare plays set in a women’s prison, in which prisoners enact the plays with everyday items and uniforms and under the supervision of guards.
The prison concept does not always serve the play well, but it reflects its themes of physical dislocation and overcoming destructive anger.
As the production begins, actress Harriet Walter (who gives an androgynous and authoritative performance) introduces herself as Hannah, a 66-year-old woman serving a lengthy sentence for serving as a getaway driver in a robbery that resulted in multiple deaths.
After Hannah picks up a book, tumult ensues and she takes on the role of Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, who was cheated out of his title and land by a nefarious brother and has lived for 12 years in isolation on the island with his daughter Miranda.
Prospero uses supernatural powers to shipwreck his brother and the others that conspired against him and bring them to his island. Prospero proceeds to trick them and shame them until he is ready to make peace.
Unlike Prospero, who gets to return to civilization, Hannah will remain in prison, but experiencing the play empowered her and aided her emotionally. With that in mind, this production makes a great case for the ongoing practice of performing Shakespeare for and with prisoners.
Now that Lloyd’s trilogy is ending, it would be nice to see more all-female or gender-blind productions of Shakespeare, but they do not necessarily need to be tied down to an experimental concept.