Saturday, June 2, 2018


Ambivalent. That's the word to describe the achievement of Phyllida Lloyd's all-female productions for the Donmar Warehouse of Julius Caesar, Henry IV and The Tempest.

Most centrally, one is ambivalent about the productions' primary schtick -- that we are watching inmates of a women's prison perform these plays, and that those performances unleash the feelings and capture the fates of these women whose lives, freedom and selfhood are literally cabined, cribbed and confined. For all its forced artificiality, it's an idea with rich expressive possibilities: the intensity of forced confinement channeling the intense immediacy of live theater, both architecturally and emotionally; the opportunity for women doubly controlled -- as women in a misogynistic world, and as prisoners -- to express their buried feelings, hopes, longings and rage with the full-throated abandon allowed to men; the bitter irony of their absolute masters being the ones who both enable and control the women's raw self-performance and self-revelation; and the ways in which this trope lights up themes and energies within each play -- Julius Caesar's contests of machismo; Henry IV's battles between anxious control and anarchic play; The Tempest's dramatization of Prospero's discovery that, for him, there is no escape from imprisonment (the "cell" of this bare island) except death.

Ben Brantley of the Times was taken with each production, and his verdict has proven to be that of the culture at large (vs. the dyspeptic, snide dismissal of the Telegraph critic on the original Caesar).

And yet... the potential of the prison trope remains more affecting in the breach than in the observance. If they really meant it, really wanted us to feel the feelings of these imprisoned women, they had to bring them more to life as actually imagined people. In each play, there is prisoner schtick at the start, prisoner schtick at the end, and one scene of prisoner dramatics (or, rather, metadramatics) interrupting the action in the middle. But the imagining of the women prisoner-actors is sketchy, and the metadrama isn't thought through deeply enough for it to shape their performances in character.

To be sure, pulling off that dance of metadramatic levels would be challenging -- but it's not undoable. Witness Robin Phillips's famous Midsummer Night's Dream in the 1970s at the Stratford, Ontario Shakespeare Festival.

Having said all that, these Donmar productions are major successes -- despite, rather than because of, their dominant and, on balance, failed frame. They are successful for the most basic of reasons -- the acting is terrific. Harriet Walter is great as Brutus, King Henry and Prospero, but so is everybody else. In particular, Sophie Stanton gives us both a Falstaff and a Caliban to remember, with all the characters' deep reserves of explosive wit, joy and imagination and without any support from the usual costuming of either. Indeed, Henry IV and The Tempest are more moving and satisfying in the end than Julius Caesar, in large measure (pun intended) because of the dynamic the larger-than-life-force Stanton creates with Walter's tight, taut angst.

Films of all three productions are running this weekend at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn Bridge Park, where all three had their American debuts. I don't know how available the films will be once this brief run is done, but I hope anyone reading this blog gets a chance to see them.

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