The Tempest

William Shakespeare

Customs House production

North Marine Park, South Shields

(2009)

Review by Gail-Nina Anderson

If you’re selecting a play for an outdoor, sea-side venue, then The Tempest must top the list of possibilities. It cries out for atmosphere, a sense of strange terrain and a direct connection to the elements, and can even survive a certain amount of bad weather (if only in the name of its title.) That said, it’s also a play of deliberate and artful artificiality, where you are apparently invited to share that sense of discovery which any brave new world might inspire, yet are constantly presented with the conjurations of master magician Prospero, so that courtly masques are as much a part of the island as its native flora and fauna.

In a conventional theatrical setting, the artificiality is probably the aspect to run with. Indeed, the whole thing can be structured as masque and anti-masque so that even the naturalistic elements are strictly controlled and defined by the pattern being played out. Outdoors, that simply isn’t going to work, so director Peter Lathan wisely gives the earthier and more emotional elements their head in a sensibly pared-down version that is less about Prospero’s long-hoarded power finally coming to fruition and more about a disparate group of individuals dealing with a sequence of strange events for which they are palpably unprepared.

The playing styles carry this through consistently across the cast, perhaps most notably in Tony Neilson’s Alonso. Like any role that calls on an actor to express regret ad nauseam, this can be a pig of a part. Neilson, though, was spot-on from the beginning and in many ways set the tone for the production. His Alonso was unassumingly direct, disorientated and finally pitched into a painful awareness of having made a bad decision. When he expresses his dissociation from everything he has been by wishing the throne of Naples into the hands of the young people he thinks dead, it’s a moment of real redemption as well as simple human warmth. No wonder David Napthine’s Prospero, who has engineered the situation, looks understandably smug. He’s pretty much a hands-on, human scale mage, which is as it should be here, though there were moments towards the end when the stage lights blessed him with a giant shadow against the dark trees and introduced a sense of his potential scale.

The trees, the night and (inevitably during an English August) the rain did all colour the way the evening was experienced. It would have been too good to hope that the (in the event, mercifully brief) shower might have obligingly presented itself during the opening storm-at-sea scene, but later on there was a thunder effect that I briefly misidentified as timely nature rather than stage artistry.

Given its setting on an island and with the sound of the sea, figuratively speaking, constantly in the back ground, there’s a slight perversity in producing the play in a park mere yards away from the coast yet entirely hidden from it. We had to imagine the sea though a very short walk would have brought us right up to the real thing. Protection from sea-breezes might be considered a reasonable compensation for this, plus the virtues of the site itself, with only slightly damp greensward and the sound of the occasional sea-gull keening overhead. If we weren’t foamy we were definitely woody, with a natural backdrop well accentuated by a shanty-town structure that could have been ship, cave or palace but was certainly bandstand for the live musicians who helped set the mood and define the action of the play.

It occurs to me that while The Tempest really does require music, within a little it doesn’t matter which style is used. The jazzy moments here worked especially well. Inevitably the space set constrictures upon staging and viewing alike, so it wasn’t all equally visible, but the use of a walkway between two fixed points did serve to make some interesting emphases. Ariel was accompanied by three dancers who were Prospero’s assorted spirits, but the fact that they danced (inevitably) along this fairly narrow route rather than across a conventional stage meant that they seemed detached from immediate control, as though their connection with everyone else’s reality really might be tangential. This worked well in establishing Ariel’s belonging to a non-human realm, which isn’t really easy with a flesh-and-blood actress in the role. Therase Neve looked and sounded like a spirited Victorian girl in her undies but by the time she had worked out her obligations to Prospero it had become far easier to see her as a creature of the elements – usually the character is set free to nothing much, so the escorting trio of dancers really provided a satisfying enhancement of that moment.

The comics were suitably down to earth, with Dale Meeks a particularly solid, robust Caliban while Dylan Mortimer and Iain Cunningham caught the double-act interaction of Trinculo’s cocky concessions to Stefano’s natural loutishness. The lovers looked amazingly young (which helps) with Helen Embleton giving Miranda an unforced earthiness, sympathetically undercutting too much wide-eyed innocence with what felt like innate common-sense under unlikely circumstances. Scott Turnbull’s Ferdinand, by contrast, conveyed the slightly callow but entirely confident charm you’d expect from an aristocratic lad suddenly faced with (literally) the only girl in the world.

Best bit of staging was when Ferdinand and Miranda really were discovered by the assembled group in their own little hidey-hole, secure from everyone else’s problems in the enclosed atmosphere of young love. Pretty good to manage that in a sizeable public park on a chilly night.