How many gee-whiz Mirandas have you witnessed in your play-going lifetime? The role of the ingenue could well be the most challenging in the canon, yet Leah Harvey – who leapt from LAMDA straight into Phyllida Lloyd’s gender-liberated (all-female) Shakespeare company – manages to make Miranda’s eponymous wonder fresh and corporeal.
Contrast Harriet Walter as Miranda’s parent, the exiled duke Prospero, ordinarily played as a capricious, vengeful, all-powerful wizard. Walter appears exhausted, too tired to wield a wand, much less restore order. Yes, she’ll go so far as to summon the requisite storm-plus-shipwreck that sets the play in motion. But her mind is clearly elsewhere, even as she peruses her book of spells.
Director Lloyd’s entire Donmar Warehouse trilogy – of which, alas, this is the closing chapter, after Julius Caesar and Henry IV – is imaginatively situated in a simulacrum of a women’s prison, and participants ground their interpretations in the experience of real-life prisoners. In this vividly imagined transposition, the shadow personae lend an extra dash of gravitas. The actual prisoner upon whom Walter has based her character, for instance, is former Weather Underground activist Judith Clark, jailed since 1983 for participating in a robbery that resulted in three deaths. Radically transformed in the ensuing decades, Clark now awaits a parole board hearing prompted by Governor Cuomo’s recent plea for clemency. Like Clark, Walter appears to hover between two worlds, questioning her culpability and agency within each.
Even so, this production comes across as relatively light and playful, thanks to the Caribbean-rap stylings of Jade Anouka as Ariel (spirited music by Joan Armatrading) and Mutt-and-Jeff comedy riffs by Jackie Clune and Karen Dunbar as a pair of greedy, gullible drunkards. If Sophie Stanton disappoints as Caliban – she lets a Cockney accent do the heavy lifting – it’s refreshing to see a Caucasian in the downtrodden role. And Sheila Atim is delightful as young Ferdinand, a love object as geeky and green as Miranda herself. Their nuptials are a wonderland of simple but effective special effects. Blue balloons tethered to water bottles become screens for an array of contemporary cultural touchstones, including visions of Golden Arches. Buckets of KFC make for a festive celebration on the cheap, and do take a close look at those matching bridal/groomal bouquets.
Every enchantment comes with its strings showing. Prospero is in one of her depressive moods when she mutters, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” Audiences are apt to emerge echoing the sentiment with a more positive spin.