The Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy @ Kings Cross Theatre, London

As weekends go, this last one was pretty Shakespeare-heavy.

Saturday involved a 6:30am start, an early train to London, and many hours spent in the auditorium of the Donmar’s temporary Kings Cross Theatre. I was a YOUNG+FREE ticket-holder for the company’s first Shakespeare Trilogy performance, and I was ready for some serious Shakespeare.

Three plays in a single day, though? That’s quite intense. Especially when it’s three huge plays that aren’t linked in terms of narrative. Or genre. Or much at all, really.

The Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy ties these plays together with a setting that runs through (and in-between) all three performances. The theatre becomes an immersive prison environment. A line of ‘inmates’ (the cast performing as individualised prison characters) are led through the crowded foyer area, and the audience is herded into the auditorium via a claustrophobic, flourescent-lit ‘holding pen’ corridor. The performance space is surrounded by meshed metal fencing. CCTV monitors are visible throughout the first performance. Three guards in uniform oversee the movements of audience- and cast-members, and the sharp sound of a klaxon punctuates the action throughout the day.

The result is a rich layering of worlds that presents the three complex plays in a new light. The prison setting interrupts the performance of Shakespeare’s texts on numerous occasions: ad-libbed insults are taken personally by prison characters, strict schedules prevent performances unfolding as planned, and, very occasionally, violence breaks out among the inmates. The prison characters also introduce each play, explaining the significance of the narrative and themes in relation to their own experiences. It’s impossible to forget about the world that holds these three productions together, and to not see the links between the plays and the prison characters’ stories.

Harriet Walter as Brutus in Julius Caesar © Helen Maybank

My favourite thing about the Trilogy was its clever approach to theatre-making; the prison setting led to some very creative solutions when it came to prop and costume design. A crown was crafted from used Coca-Cola and Irn-Bru cans. Basic items of costume were added to the grey-tracksuit uniforms worn by the cast to indicate changes in character or setting. A kids’ kitchen playset became Mistress Quickly’s tavern, and water pistols were used as deadly weapons. No map? No matter. A giant outline of the UK was spray-painted onto the floor for the purposes of land division in Act 3, Scene 1 of Henry IV.

Each scene brought a new surprise, and I was more than happy to go along with everything the company threw at me.

Prince Hal’s (Clare Dunne) makeshift crown in Henry IV © Helen Maybank

I’ve thought long and hard about the trilogy’s prison setting.

The Donmar’s representation of a prison environment was (mostly) accurate and effective. I have a little experience in observing and facilitating theatre workshops with inmates at HMP Drake Hall, and the Donmar Trilogy certainly captured the reality of going into this sort of environment. (Though I wasn’t allowed take anything remotely resembling a weapon into the prison;  water-pistols and rubber knives would’ve been off the table.)

There were some big questions that lingered in my mind during and after the performances, though. What message(s) should I take away from the experience? That prison is bad? That Shakespeare’s plays can be seen to reflect the lives of more people today than we might think?

More importantly – who were the women represented on stage? If they were real, what agency had the women had in the way in which their stories were told at the Kings Cross Theatre?

The Donmar’s decision to employ a prison setting – particularly the inclusion of prison characters – meant that the company were representing an ‘Other’ on stage. On the surface, it seemed that the women whose lives had inspired the Trilogy had been replaced by actors, with elements of a foreign environment replicated for the purposes of entertainment. The quality of acting and production was always excellent, but I needed to know more about the intentions and processes that underpinned the production(s) as a whole.

The Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy cast as their prison characters © The Donmar Warehouse

Clean Break is a charity focused on sharing the hidden stories of imprisoned women through theatre. As well as offering education and rehabilitation programmes for women offenders, Clean Break provide a platform through which important issues within the criminal justice system can be explored. The York St John University Prison Partnership Project – involving the University’s theatre department and HMP Askham Grange – provides a creative partnership between the arts, education, and the prison service.

The Donmar have worked with Clean Break and the York St John University Prison Partnership Project throughout their four-year production process. After initially deciding to stage an all-female production of Shakespeare, intended to increase possibilities for women in 21st century Shakespearean performance, director Phyllida Lloyd and actor Harriet Walter selected a prison setting as a way in to understanding Julius Caesar in this context. The company then took the text to women prisoners to explore its relevance to their experiences, and identified specific stories and/or women that would inform the creation of their prison characters. In collaboration with Clean Break and the Prison Partnership Project, members of the Donmar cast continued to work with prisoners throughout the process of staging the Trilogy with a view to giving an authentic insight into prison life on stage.

There’s more: Clean Break and the Prison Partnership Project have ensured that women within the criminal justice system have benefitted from the Donmar’s work. Inmates at HMP Askham Grange have taken part in a series of workshops based on the plays forming the Trilogy, and young women have worked with Clean Break to create a piece of original work inspired by Shakespeare’s texts and their own lives (to be performed at Kings Cross Theatre on 2 December). The cherry on the cake? The Donmar Trilogy cast features two graduates of Clean Break’s education programme.

Imprisoned voices are being heard on the stage of the Kings Cross Theatre, even if they were originally included as a means of justifying an all-women cast for Shakespeare. The productions’ carefully-crafted setting provides a framework for a fast-paced, emotional, and incredibly well-acted telling of Julius CaesarHenry IV, and The Tempest. The energy and innovation on stage turns the gruelling prospect of a Shakespeare trilogy into a real joy.

My day with the Donmar is going to stay with me for a long time, I think; it was some of the best theatre I’ve ever seen. Plus it’s free for all aged 25 and under. Who can argue with that?

Ariel (Jade Anouka) and the company of The Tempest © The Donmar Warehouse