You could be forgiven for not realising that The Jailer’s Daughter is based on a Shakespeare creation (or rather co-creation, in collaboration with John Fletcher), which was itself based on Chaucer. It’s not just that the title’s different, or that The Two Noble Kinsmen is less well-known than many of Shakespeare’s other works. No, the main reason you wouldn’t immediately make the connection is that this reality TV-inspired play is about as far from the early 17th century as you can get.
In the original, the jailer’s daughter is a lovesick teenager victimised by every male figure in her life and ultimately driven mad by her unrequited desire for an indifferent prince. Not so in Esther Joy Mackay’s reimagined version, where Julia (Grace Hussey-Burd) is one of the few characters who’s actually seeing clearly. Unfortunately her father – The Jailer (Josh Sissons), a Big Brother-esque reality TV boss – has other ideas, especially after she causes a scene in the production room by protesting his show’s moral and ethical shortcomings. Before she knows it, Julia’s in the “lockup” herself, alongside various D-list celebrities, all of them serving time on the show as punishment for crimes committed on the outside. And then there’s Palamon (Rory Gradon), the jewel in the Jailer’s crown – quite literally as it turns out, because he happens to be an actual real-life prince. Naturally, the nation wants a love story… and one way or another, the Jailer is going to make sure they get it.
In a clever twist, Mackay gives the audience a degree of control over how the story unfolds, by setting up a series of votes throughout the show. These are conducted via voting pads handed out at the start of the evening, which add a fun, unpredictable element to the story – even though the questions posed, with one possible exception, never feel like real game-changers. Given the nature of some of the challenges and punishments we’ve seen and heard being handed out (electric shocks, solitary confinement, being made to eat raw chicken or drink all the booze in the house), I was expecting to be faced with tougher choices and to feel more complicit in the characters’ fates. But perhaps that’s just me – and the fact is the reality TV angle does work very well; anyone who’s ever enjoyed, however guiltily, watching Big Brother, Love Island or I’m a Celebrity will spot plenty of references to geek out over.
Under Sarah Fox’s polished direction, the cast slip effortlessly between playing captors and captives (though there are a few moments during the chaotic group scenes when the traverse staging makes it difficult to catch all of the dialogue). It’s no surprise that the two lead male roles, Palamon – the one who’s actually lovesick – and William (Saem Ahmed) the show’s in-house doctor, have been written as blandly boring nice guys, in contrast to Julia’s fiery determination to bring her dad’s entire project crashing to the ground, come what may. Grace Hussey-Burd is a force of nature as the newly reclaimed jailer’s daughter, making it clear from the start that she has a mind of her own and she’s not afraid to use it. And it’s a pity we don’t get to see more of Rachel Wilkes’ brusquely sympathetic Cleo, a former athlete with her own reasons for objecting to the show’s policy of forcing contestants into couples.
The Jailer’s Daughter is based on a great idea, and certainly succeeds in its aim of bringing the nameless teenager of Shakespeare and Fletcher’s play into the light and giving her her own story and identity. From a technological point of view, too, the production is brilliantly executed – lighting, sound and the masterstroke of the voting pads all combine to create a true multimedia experience for the audience. For me, the delivery of the final climactic scene lacked a little bit of drama, but the plot twist is really well written and does genuinely catch you off guard (though who knows, it could be totally different next time). A topical and entertaining take on a 400-year-old play, this is a production that both reality TV fans and cynics alike will enjoy – and then probably debate fiercely all the way home.
The Jailer’s Daughter is at The Space until 24th August.