Shakespeare 101: muck/fuck about with it all you like, the poor sod’s well out of copyright, but the acid test for any modern rendering is ‘if you hadn’t seen this play before, would this production tell you the story?’ and the answer to the Donmar’s all-girl Tempest is a big fat no.

O brave new shed that hath such people in it: the temporary theatre on the increasingly attractive pedestrian precint by King’s Cross is nifty although it takes half an hour to marshal the audience into its grandstand seating. Everything’s shiny and everyone friendly which makes a good first impression. I popped the top of my canned gin and tonic during the storm and was pleasantly surprised no-one rustled a sweet or consulted a phone for two hours.

But setting it in a women’s prison is an ennervated trope with the shouty staging of a girls’ comprehensive school play as though some supply teacher thought ‘Prospero’s cell – oh there’s an idea that won’t stretch the budget’.

Despite the luxurious casting of Harriet Walter rocking a wife-beater vest at 66, her interestingly hesitant Prospero is surrounded at best by a series of knockabout comic turns like Jackie Clune and Karen Dunbar playing Stefano and Trinculo as a Mutt and Jeff double act, and Sophie Stanton’s deliberately lumpen bag lady which may evoke the shade of Victoria Wood but does nothing to illuminate the character of Caliban.

The Tempest is about redemption – not just for Prospero where you could concede that a prison term might give the character headspace to reform and recant – but also bringing life changes for Ferdinand, Miranda, Antonio and Caliban. In trackie bottoms and trainers, trailing strings of old milk cartons and estuary accents, they just don’t seem to make a dramatic journey.
There’s no lyricism in the verse speaking, and precious little magic although there is one moment where James Farncombe’s lighting and Phyllida Lloyd’s direction collide beautifully for ‘we are such stuff as dreams are made on’ with projections onto large white balloons. Then Prospero takes a knitting needle to deflate them.

Sorry, Harriet, but you’ve let us down too.



until 17 December

seen 19 October.  Note: although the ‘official’ press night is not till 22 November, this production has been running since September and pricing has been raised from ‘preview’ to ‘normal’ levels.  I paid for a ticket.