To have welcomed one leading figure of the theatre world to the school would have been great fortune, to welcome two was a very rare treat indeed. In an evening devoted to the Donmar Theatre's Shakespeare Trilogy, film and stage director, Phyllida Lloyd, and producer Kate Pakenham (an Old Dolphin), provided us with an insider's view of the project from its inception through to its imminent arrival on BBC 4 and BBC iPlayer.
With the guests ensconced on a plush velvet sofa, the conversation kicked off with Phyllida and Kate recounting how the Trilogy came about and the motivations behind the decision to have an all-female cast for each of the three plays. Phyllida explained that they wanted to move away from Shakespeare's comedies which, while they include some wonderful female roles, tend to box women into the domestic sphere or present them as objects of male desire. Choosing Julius Caesar as the first production, a drama in which only two of the thirty-two named roles are for women (both loyal wives), enabled actresses to fully inhabit the powerful world of ambition, politics and war.
A performer who gained universal acclaim for her roles in the Trilogy was Harriet Walter, a major force behind the project. In a review for the Sunday Times, one of Godolphin’s own past pupils, Maxie Szalwinska, compared the experience of watching Walter's Brutus to 'witnessing alchemy' and it was fascinating to hear first-hand accounts of this player’s formidable talent, courage and indomitable stamina. Clips of filmed versions of the stage productions allowed us to see these qualities for ourselves, as well as illuminating some of the key areas of discussion: the significance of the prison as a framing device; the exuberant comedy which breaks out to differing degrees in each play; the refreshing diversity that comes from inviting female actors of various ethnicities, shapes, ages and accents to create true ensemble playing.
The prison setting for the trilogy has garnered praise for its innovatory and experimental daring; however, the frame was much more than a dramatic device. An important part of the process of getting the Trilogy on stage involved working with female prisoners in conjunction with the Clean Break Theatre Company and the York St John University Partnership Project. Such reaching out beyond the elite boundaries of Shakespeare performance was continued through initiatives such as the company taking up residence at Mulberry School for Girls in Tower Hamlets to deliver a week of performances of Henry IV for the local community.
Just over an hour passed by in a flash and, inevitably, some questions had to be left unanswered, not least why Prince Hal was a Chelsea supporter. Judging by the audience response to the evening, a return visit would be more than welcome.