How it’s New York: Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse is one of the hippest places in the city; it’s known
especially as an importer of acclaimed and innovative work from overseas. The new building has the most comfortable lobby in town, with chaise loungeand often live music in the bar.
How it’s (Irish) English: The show is the third in the trilogy of Shakespeare plays performed by women, with the conceit that they are all inmates in a prison, and hails from England’s Donmar Warehouse.
Of all Shakespeare plays to set in a prison cell, “The Tempest” makes the most sense. Prospero, a sorcerer and the rightful Duke of Milan, is living on an island from which he cannot escape, after having been usurped by his own brother Antonio. He seizes a chance to cause a shipwreck when Antonio and King Alonso of Naples, complicit in the crime, are nearby, and restore himself and his daughter Miranda to their rightful places. Most prisoners can only depend on clemency.
“The Tempest” at St. Ann’s Warehouse is the third in a trilogy from the Donmar Warehouse in London, all directed by Phyllida Lloyd, all featuring actor Harriet Walter, and casts of women performing a play within a play. “Julius Caesar” and “Henry IV” were presented earlier this season.
“The Tempest” is fiercely successful, asking the audience when and how does the punishment fit the crime. In each production, an actor frames the play by introducing the modern-day inmate telling the story. In “The Tempest,” Walter shows that Prospero’s interpretation is based on the story of Judith Clark, a 67-year-old woman serving 75-to-life in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York. Clark drove the getaway car in 1981 for a bank robbery that resulted in the deaths of two
police officers. (Andrew Cuomo has commuted Clark’s sentence this past December, according to press notes, and she will be granted a parole hearing this year).
It’s impossible not to hear her story at the top of the show and ask what justice means- and that was the point of the choice. One of the play’s most indelible moments comes at the end, as prisoners leave, calling “Bye, Hannah!” while Walter sits alone in her cell.
But thematic sincerity doesn’t always make for great theater, and this is great theater. It has everything– terrific performances, surprise, spectacle, insight. If you can nab a ticket (It’s sold out, performances through Feb. 19), even if you’ve seen “The Tempest” before, you need to go.
You’ve never seen it done like this.
You know the play will be witty from the top: prisoners make a circle of trash to define a playing space. When the sound of waves comes, the unseen shipwreck is quite exciting.
Jade Anouka, Prospero’s servant Ariel, whom he freed from a tree where she had been locked by
the witch Sycorax, has childish energy and urban moves. She had been in solitary confinement. Lloyd drives home that this really is a play about imprisonment.
Caliban, Sycorax’s son, is often played sympathetically these days, as a symbol of colonial injustice. While he makes some good points about how Prospero taught him language and now he knows how to curse, and that the island was his until Prospero came along, it’s refreshing to see Sophie Stanton portray him as a thug and would-be rapist of Prospero’s innocent daughter Miranda (Leah Harvey). Stanton makes Caliban repulsive, comic, with what I think is a Cockney accent, and yet not entirely wrong in his complaints. The clowns Trinculo and Stefano, who fall in with Caliban are often tedious to read but great fun to see in the hands of good comic actors. Karen Dunbar’s Scottish Trinculo and Jackie Clune’s Stefano bring the laughs. As Alonso’s trusted counselor Gonzalo, Zainab Hasan demonstrates essential decency and courage.
Walter’s Prospero commands with dignity. Some of this comes from her strong and expressive
Costuming is witty as well: sailors wear life guards during the shipwreck. The evil Antonio (Carolina Valdés) sports Donald Trump, Jr. slicked-back hair.
Lloyd’s staging uses the entire space– actors come through the audience, through vomitories, sit on
steps. It’s an unusal “Tempest” with no intermission. The cuts and some rearranging are judicious and it’s worth it for the surprising tableaux. Music, composed by pop-folk star Joan Armatrading, is by turns eerie and lovely. Particularly haunting and engaging is a scene set at the wedding of Miranda and Alonso’s son Ferdinand (gallantly imagined by Sheila Atim) uses balloons under black light. The larger balloons show moving images of beautiful, beautiful earth– fields, ocean– then they morph into scenes of advertising and contemporary confusion. One by one Prospero pops the balloons.
It’s stunning to see, to feel those pops as they hit your skin, to feel the sadness as the beautifulimages change. It’s brilliant conception and direction by Lloyd, and unforgettable theater, leading to Prospero’s famous “Our revels now are ended.”
That isn’t the line that ends the play, of course, but it’s an end of a state of mind. What will be the “brave new world” Prospero returns to? It’s a question that haunts those goodbyes as prisoners leave Hannah behind, too.