Three years ago the Donmar’s all-woman Julius Caesar, set in prison, left me feeling that something genuinely new had happened: a revolution, a seismic shift in the possible. Gender was made irrelevant by the unforgettable performance of Harriet Walter as Brutus: pale, handsomely chiselled, androgynous and tragic, her bright, dangerous eyes gave a strung-out sense that beneath the utter control Caesar’s assassin is haunted, “sick of many griefs’. I wrote then: “if this extraordinary human being gets shoved back full-time into frocks it will be a shocking crime against theatre.”. I wanted to see her Iago, Leontes, Richard III, Macbeth, Lear – possibly in a mixed cast. Individuality transcended gender.

Since then we have had other women tackling the great male Shakespeare roles: Maxine Peake’s Hamlet, Glenda Jackson’s Lear. But now, following an equally successful Henry IV (both parts truncated into two sharp hours) Phyllida Lloyd brings both back, in this tented Donmar outstation which convinces all too easily as a prison gym. And the team add a third: The Tempest. So Walters is Brutus, Henry IV and Prospero; and on some courageous days you can see all three, with a lively versatile cast. That Storm Angus made me miss the Caesar with this largely different cast is a source of great annoyance: but as Walters’ Brutus, at least, it is imprinted on my memory so strongly never mind. The other two were tremendous.

The setting is more than a directorial conceit to roughen and de-gender female actors: the company worked with real prisoners and with their Clean Break theatre, some of whose members have been cast. Several actually studied to represent real inmates: Walters takes (watch their online video) powerful identification with an American woman lifer who has served 35 years after playing getaway driver in a political heist which – not directly through her – killed   two policemen.  Walters reports that this woman has found, over years, a remorseful private peace. The result of this play-within-a-play is an intriguing double vision: women sometimes wholly being men, sometimes revealing that they are women damaged by life, sometimes slyly aping male swagger and aggression. After all, a collection of rough-edged women of all ages can be as larky and prankish and teasing as any Cheapside revellers, as combative as soldiery, as quick to stir as a Roman mob.  Sex ceases to register, though one extraordinary musical ensemble in the Henry IV – led by Sheila Atim as Lady Percy lamenting Hotspur’s departure – is deeply womanly in its grief.

There are brusque interruptions from staff (very handy to make sense of the quick scene changes in The Tempest) , and occasional slang and seeming losses of cool by the “inmate” performers. Fights are subdued by officers, Falstaff suddenly can’t take the rejection of Prince Hal and disrupts the final scene, Brutus collapses sobbing when the ordeal is over. And when Falstaff’s gang turn too explicitly and brutally on Mistress Quickly she stops the scene in tears.



Apart from the centrality of Walters there are some terrific performances: notably Jade Anouka as a willing subservient Ariel and a red-hot, ferociously athletic Hotspur. Sophie Stanton is a swaggering Falstaff, the class joker and a fine grumpy Caliban; Clare Dunne a forthright lad of a Hal, Karen Dunbar an extraordinarily pitiable drunken Bardolph and a downtrodden Trinculo.


It is playful, poignant and electric in turns. The pathos of the tatty props – a tinfoil crown, an island made of rubbish on a string, a toddler chair Falstaff straps on as a cod crown – adds to the sense of urgency: these are desperate people, imprisoned both literally and mentally but escaping through the telling of a story and the imagining of other personalities. The storm in The Tempest is a prison riot, banging on doors, Prospero whirling in shouting frustration in her cell below: Miranda’s shocked “Oh that I have suffered with those that I saw suffer” takes on an urgent meaning as the rioters are returned behind the mesh. When Ariel is reminded of Sycorax she curls on the prison bed like an abused child. When she is set free it is to leave the prison, as do others: they thank Prospero as he/she settles once again, in the cell and poor Caliban goes round with the floor-polisher in the corridor beyond. When the two plays about political power end, an officer strides in for lock-up and for rulers and citizens alike it is “Line up! Lead out!” . The bruised faces lose their intensity and performance energy  to become once more immpassive, sullen social rejects. It hits you on the raw. Just as theatre does in real prisons. 0844 815 7151 to 15 dec

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rating five

5 Meece Rating


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