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Review: The Donmar's all female The Tempest, King's Cross

TEMPEST_1263x505If you saw the Phyllida Lloyd-directed all female Henry IV or Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden you'll have an idea of the tone and style of The Tempest which completes a trilogy of plays for the company. If you didn't see them then then the first thing to know is they were powerful pieces with a modern grit and contemporary edge.

The biggest difference between the first two plays and The Tempest is the venue. The Tempest opens at a temporary space outside King's Cross station which is bigger and more spacious (more loos) and has the stage surrounded on four sides by the audience. Julius Caesar and Henry IV are being revived as part of the run at King's Cross.

Each of plays is set in a woman's prison*, a device that is used fully throughout rather than being a flimsy artistic contrivance. In fact it works particularly well with The Tempest; Harriet Walter plays a prisoner serving a long sentence who is playing Prospero. As she recites Prospero's explanation of how he ended up on the island it is difficult not to see it as a sort of incarceration. The setting also highlights other imprisonments - Ariel's by Sycorax, Caliban by Prospero (for the crime of trying to harm his daughter Miranda) and then the magical imprisonment of the nobles shipwrecked on the isle at Propero's command. At the end there is liberty for most but perhaps not not all.

As well as the prison garb there are other references, guards that appear to march characters off, food served up on prison trays and the actors improvise  using prison furniture. Parts of the costumes and masks look home-made using recycled rubbish. There are also occasional clever additions to Shakespeare's dialogue, usually a modern reference or quip that adds to the fun and enjoyment.

Ariel is a street-wise, red hair-sporting Jade Anouka - who continues to be been brilliant in everything I've seen her in. She part raps some of Ariel's songs, carries her own mic and uses a boombox to great effect and yet she also manages to maintains a spirit-like quality appearing and disappearing at various points around the auditorium.

Caliban (Sophie Stanton) has a dishevelled, homeless look with carrier bags and rubbish tied into the costume, in fact rubbish becomes a feature - flotsam to be collected and dragged about. Miranda (Leah Harvey) may have a mohican but also has a sweetness and makes a lovely pairing with Sheila Atim's Ferdinand.

With contemporary beats flavoured with calypso there is a hint of the tropical in the grimy, utilitarian prison setting and on occasion a carnival, almost celebratory feel as if on the eve of release. Harriet Walter's Prospero adds an element of calm nobility, revered, respected and feared all at once. There is a genuine warmth in her relationship with Miranda which you don't often see in productions of The Tempest.

It is fast-paced - the play has been trimmed to just under two hours without an interval - and is full of energy, clever and refreshing.  The Tempest is a worthy addition to the Donmar's all female Shakespeare stable and I'm giving it five stars. It runs in rep with Julius Caesar and Henry IV until December 17. On selected dates you can see all three plays in one day.

* After seeing Henry IV, I thought I was done with the woman's prison setting but I'm obviously not because this worked so well.

Related posts:

Julius Caesar review

Henry IV review

The fab Jade Anouka:

Chef, Soho Theatre

And I also loved her in Jamie Lloyd's Dr Faustus