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Review: ‘The Tempest’—O brave new world, that has such theater in’t

By Jil Picariello, Theater Editor, January 20, 2017

I can finally take “go to prison” off my bucket list.

I can also delete “see a brilliant take on Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Because in a single stroke of good fortune, I did both in one evening, at the remarkable all-women production delivered to us by London’s Donmar Warehouse, currently at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.

The play is the last of director Phyllida Lloyd’s trilogy of fully-female prison-based Shakespeares, following Julius Caesar and the Henry IV plays (there was a little extra one-off, kind of a theatrical Rogue One, with The Taming of the Shrew at the Delacorte last summer). I’m not sure if it even matters here that these are women playing men. It quickly becomes irrelevant, since The Tempest is hardly about men and women and the roles they play.

What is relevant is the magic of the theater itself, that transforms a prison into an island ruled by a magician intent on revenge. The prisoners transform into the players in Prospero’s drama, and we in the audience are transformed by it all. A dreary, chain-linked, bare-boned square encircled by strings of rubbish becomes enchantment and love story, revenge and fulfillment. Such is the “rough magic” of art.

Prospero is, of course, a prisoner, a duke exiled to this island by his jealous brother. And he is played here by a prisoner. But he is also a prisoner with a slave, the angry, ugly Caliban (Sophie Stanton). There are prisons within prisons here, and plots within plots. Harriet Walter, as the ruler of this isle, is hell-bent on revenge, yet also aware of the corrupting force of her desires. It all comes down to forgiveness in the end, as it, of course, should. The Tempest is a comedy, after all.

The play has been tucked and tightened into a brisk two hours that fly by. And a steel-drum-laced score has been added by Joan Armatrading that surely Shakespeare would love, giving the space a true island accent. The sound design by Pete Malkin delivers extra enchantment, particularly the ear-tickling bone-crunching riff of Ariel’s transformations—the first time I found myself waiting impatiently to hear a specific sound in a theater. (And what the talented Jane Anouka does with the sound is a pleasure to the eyes as well.)

The entire cast is almost too good to be true. So good in fact, that they make you forget how superb the remarkable Harriet Walter is as Prospero. The love-drunk young couple, Miranda (Leah Harvey) and Ferdinand (Sheila Atim) glow like angels with passion. And their glee is matched by the drunken fools Stefano (Jackie Clune) and Trunculo (Karen Dunbar), who are the funniest duo I’ve ever seen on a Shakespeare-strewn stage.

The production is proof that it doesn’t take a massive bankbook to create great art (not that there’s anything wrong with a massive bankbook, as proved by another evening’s return to The Great Comet, which surely cost a pretty penny to produce, and money well-spent it surely is). Prospero’s prison-island features fences and a bed and a few chairs, some balloons and books, a ring of recyclable trash to mark the magician’s reef, and a small plastic flashlight for every member of the audience. The cast wears prison-issue pants and shirts, and an occasional jacket or hoodie. It’s not dazzling, until it is—when the lights go out and we all bring forth the starlight with our tiny lights in the darkness. It is magic right there, it is community, it is joy, it is beauty…it is what theater is all about.


The Tempest runs through February 18, 2017 at St. Ann’s Warehouse, 45 Water Street, Brooklyn. Running time: 2 hours with no intermission. Written by William Shakespeare. Originally produced by Donmar Warehouse, London. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd; set and costume design by Chloe Lamford; theatre environment design by Bunny Christie; 
lighting design by James Farcombe; 
sound design by Pete Malkin
; music by Joan Armatrading. 
Cast: Jade Anouka, Sheila Atim, Jackie Clune, Shiloh Coke, Karen Dunbar, Leah Harvey, Zainab Hasan, Martina Laird, Liz Spencer, Sophie Stanton, Carolina Valdes, Harriet Walter


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