“The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.” This is the moral heart of Phyllida Lloyd’s searing and humbling Tempest, especially as delivered by Harriet Walter, who, with Lloyd, completes a trilogy of Shakespeare plays set in a women’s prison (after Julius Caesar and Henry IV). Now, as Prospero, the magician-ruler of a lonely island, Walter reminds her audience that all the spectacle, pathos, and comedy of the Bard’s final play is in the service of one unimaginably difficult act of forgiveness.
In Lloyd’s production, the conceit of which manages to be innovative but not cloying, the forgiveness is twofold. First, there is Prospero, who, as the unjustly exiled duke of Milan, has been forced to raise his daughter Miranda in isolation, while commanding the loyal spirit Ariel and controlling the mischievous Caliban, son of a witch whose position Prospero usurped. When his mainland malefactors crash on the island, he sets in motion a plot to regain his dukedom, marry his daughter to the king’s son, and show mercy to the men who exiled him. Second, there is Hannah, a lifelong political prisoner, also played by Walter, performing the play for herself and her fellow inmates. Hannah effectively disappears after she is first introduced, but the layering of her suffering onto Prospero’s underscores the strength both require to respond to persecution with mercy.
The frame of the women’s prison minimally intervenes in the plot. It’s there mostly to guide costumes and setting and give conceptual permission to a first-rate, all-female cast. Lloyd respects her actors enough not to rewrite lines to fit their gender: Walter plays Prospero, not Prospera, and thank goodness. Designer Chloe Lamford places the production in a basketball court, with audience on all sides, so that the play moves quickly and energetically over two intermissionless hours. Walter spends most of that time on the (literal) sidelines, an understated director observing the lives she controls, until she lets Prospero’s emotions overwhelm her, exhibiting a depth that many actors in the role struggle to find.
Walter’s carefully orchestrated performance anchors a forceful and energetic production in which the vigor of a youthful company contrasts against her tempered wisdom. Leah Harvey plays Miranda not as an innocent naïf but, refreshingly, as a strong-willed woman leaping full-throttle at her chance for love. Jade Anouka’s Ariel is multifaceted, sometimes the captivating DJ at Prospero’s party, other times a young woman eager to be set free, but always confident and warm. A particular highlight is Sophie Stanton, who makes Caliban a worthy foil to her “tyrant” Prospero, her desperate search for revenge made sympathetic through Stanton’s emotionally direct and clear portrayal.
Vengeance may be less rare than virtue, but it is hardly unjustified, and the courage of Lloyd’s staging is that it never loses sight of this fact. In the play’s poignant final moments, Prospero prepares to leave the island while Hannah faces the future in her cell. Lloyd tasks us with living up to both their examples, and we are left to measure our limitations against them.
St. Ann’s Warehouse
45 Water Street, Brooklyn
Through February 19