BWW Review: SHAKESPEARE TRILOGY, King's Cross Theatre, 22 November 2016

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"Inmates, coming through." That's our introduction to Phyllida Lloyd's landmark trilogy, as the homogenised prisoners are steered through the audience by prison officers. But this extraordinarily empathetic project, developed with Clean Break, gives those inmates individual voices and means of expression, while the all-female cast that inhabit them gives new voice to three familiar plays.

Now housed in a specially built venue adjoining King's Cross Theatre, the first production, Julius Caesar, appeared at the Donmar Warehouse in 2012; Henry IV followed in 2014, and the newest offering is The Tempest. They're all presented as plays-within-a-play - performances by inmates in a women's prison - and ruthlessly edited into streamlined two-hour productions.

The prison conceit is most effective as ever-present framing: Bunny Christie and Chloe Lamford's stark institutional playing space that encloses both actors and audience with a chain-link fence, monitored by CCTV; the subtle yet powerful thematic resonance of those in captivity exploring the notion of liberty, jostling for position and territory, shifting loyalties and factionalism, or seeking a path to forgiveness, growth and redemption.

There are, however, times when the device becomes cumbersome. Interruptions by prison officers halt the momentum, wrenching us out of the drama, and some of the larky asides and anachronisms tilt the work too far into comedy. A Donald Trump gag flounders; better is the all-too-relevant exploration of tyranny, "the abuse of greatness", versus a self-defeating, sanctimonious ideological purity. Yet Lloyd's welcoming inclusivity should certainly be applauded, incorporating everything from twerking, Tracey Emin and Connect Four to Chess, Chelsea FC and Margaret Atwood.

Each play begins with a speech from a prisoner, establishing an interpretative theme: Julius Caesar with Jade Anouka's domestic abuse victim who finally fought back; Henry IV with Clare Dunne's drug addict seeking a second chance; and The Tempest with Harriet Walter's Hannah, inspired by political prisoner Judith Clark, who was given life with no parole for her part in a politically motivated bank robbery and separated from her 11-month-old daughter. It's a reminder that prison is a sentence for children too, and Hannah's parental grief and search for some kind of peace infuses Walter's performance.

In Julius Caesar (*****), the most electrifying of the three, her Brutus is unusually emotionally nuanced - wearing diffidence as protective armour, tortured by the search for the honourable course of action, straining beneath the weight of unwanted responsibility, and fury at Cassius's dubious dealings underlined by weary, guilt-ridden grief at the loss of Portia.

There's real loneliness, too, which emerges again in the otherwise larkier, condensed Henry IV (****), with Walter's insomniac King separated from his subjects. At court, he's a steely mafia don, impenetrable and casually dominant; Walter adopts a manspreading pose, leaning back in her chair to show how little the King needs to do to assert authority, or stalks the stage with menacing grace. But he's also cut adrift, as is Prospero in a luminous Tempest (****), which switches gear effectively to end in heartrending fashion. Androgynous, authoritative, crisply spoken and watchful, Walter is a mesmerising anchor, yet her exceptional presence - both within the plays and the cast - becomes a fascinating point of exploration.

She's supported by an outstanding company, and it's a joy to see such a diverse representation of women - differing ages, sizes, races, nationalities - and female performers able to show a range often denied to them. Jackie Clune is a swaggering Julius Caesar and hilariously indignant Westmoreland, the teller of grandiose tall tales; Jade Anouka is a wired, cocky prizefighter of a hot-blooded Hotspur, a quietly lethal Mark Antony, cueing audience responses during his savvy oration, and an eager, buoyant Ariel, haunted by Sycorax's cruel imprisonment - Anouka curls into a ball and clutches the bedpost for support when Prospero recounts it.

Sophie Stanton gives a superb Falstaff, both a charming bluffer and damaged - and damaging - user, as well as a surly, slumped, self-pitying Caliban. Clare Dunne is a fiery Portia, whose "Think you I am no stronger than my sex" challenge to her husband of course has particular impact in this casting; she also provides a hedonistic lad of a Hal. When she and Stanton role-play as Hal and his father, it's a telling moment of truth through artifice that also illuminates what drama means to the inmates.

Karen Dunbar gives a wonderfully beleaguered Trinculo and wry Casca, while Leah Harvey, making her professional debut, is a gorgeously open-hearted Miranda, whose courtship with Sheila Atim's bemused Ferdinand has real youthful vigour; Harvey is also a strong Poins, and Atim a stirring Lady Percy, who cuts through the male bluster. Martina Laird's Cassius has a musicality to his persuasive eloquence and a shrewd mind seen again in Laird's more calculating Alonso and Worcester (though, topically, Cassius is undone by fake news).

Lloyd ensures a brisk pace, even in the usually interminable battle scenes, and the plays have an immersive, kinetic quality - the conspirators looming over the front row to murder Caesar; a map roughly spray-painted on the floor; audience participation during a wedding feast that features the arresting sight of Duncan McLean's projections onto floating balloons; Ann Yee and Kate Waters's propulsive movement, from organic fights to a street-dancing Ariel rippling and bone-cracking.

Music is well incorporated, too, with Joan Armatrading's appropriately otherworldly island soundtrack for The Tempest through to the sharp ring of percussion for gunshots (the talented cast doubles up as musicians). Prospero's magic is well realised via a combination of sound and James Farncombe's expressive lighting; he also plunges us into Antony's multimedia propaganda by creating a TV static effect.

Though the prison framing has powerful moments, it's not necessary as justification for female casting in Shakespeare - the fantastic performances here do that anyway, and it's currently a trend rather than a radical concept. Similarly, there's fascinating interrogation of specific male and female characteristics, but the greatest takeaway from this exciting enterprise - most evident in the rewarding marathon viewing - is its rich, wide-ranging and liberating portrait of humanity.

Shakespeare Trilogy at King's Cross Theatre until 17 December

Read our interview with Leah Harvey

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks



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From This Author Marianka Swain