Last night, when all things seemed possible, we went to see the Donmar Warehouse’s female-only version of The Tempest. It could have been a great way to usher in a new, more empowered era …. turns out it wasn’t. A new dawn has not broken. We have four more years of self-seeking, misogynist racism ahead – but it was an absolutely brilliant show anyway.
Harriet Walters effortlessly held the stage as a self-declared political prisoner/Prospero who is the kingpin (or should that be queenpin?) of life in a prison. She has grown used to controlling all the other inmates, pulling every string like the great magician Prospero. But, as the action unfolds, she resigns herself to relinquishing her power over her cellmates. In the traditional version of The Tempest, this happens when she/he leaves the island and returns to Milan – the real world. Within the prison walls of this staging, there is no exit for Prospero, who has been in prison for 35 years at this point and is being held indefinitely. All the other prisoners leave her, instead. The moment when she declares ‘our revels now are ended’ was inexpressibly sad, as she comes to terms with the fact that the story she has created is a fantasy and that resolving its plot will lead to her abandonment and isolation.
I thought it was a wonderful reinterpretation of the play, and I loved the swagger of the actors, released from the pressure of looking ‘good’ in conventional female ways. They owned their trackie bottoms and sweaty singlets, and took up space, and didn’t care. The set, and the temporary theatre itself right outside Kings Cross Station, added to the atmosphere. I’m kicking myself I haven’t seen the other two parts of the trilogy, Henry IV and Julius Caesar. There were fantastic performances last night from Ariel, Miranda and the drunken sailors, but Harriet Walters was supreme as Prospero. Go and see it if you can.