In 2009 Ray Spencer, Chief Executive of the Customs House, asked me if I’d like to direct an open-air production of The Tempest.
Is the Pope Catholic? Do bears etc etc etc?
I’d given up hope of ever playing in Shakespeare again, but then again I’d almost completely given up acting anyway. That so essential a skill for actors, the ability to learn lines quickly and thoroughly, had deserted me, for during the '80s and '90s (apart from a spell of about six years when I was trying to make my living from photography and publicity—but that’s another story), I had concentrated on teaching, writing and directing.
To be offered the chance of a full-length production was sheer magic and, to this day, I remain very grateful to Ray for the chance! I do have to say that The Tempest wouldn’t have been my first choice of play but hey, it’s Shakespeare so I wasn’t going to complain.
Ray wanted the performance to be in North Marine Park where there was a children’s play area which includes a small wooden galleon (I understand it's gone now) in a natural amphitheatre with a semi-circular path at one end with a wooden walkway leading to the boat. I could see the possibilities straightaway—audience (bringing their picnics and drinks) on both sides of the walkway, the boat to be both the ship at the beginning and the place for the members of the small band, who incidentally I had spread around the amphitheatre before the show, making some musical sounds, constantly moving from place to place, so as to fulfil what Caliban said:
“Be not afear’d; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.”
Stephano and Trinculo would enter through the audience, stealing a quick drink or even a bit of food. Ariel’s spirits would be constantly present, in or behind the audience or even crouched at the edge of the walkway and when Ariel (I deliberately made Ariel a woman) was released by Prospero, she was carried, as if flying, by the spirits and was let loose to the wide, dark area behind the galleon, creating a real sense that she was free.
I needed a great choreographer, so I approached Dora Frankel who had trained at the Rambert School and worked in Finland and Sweden as well as the UK and much of whose work I had seen and felt a real affinity with.
All these ideas came flooding in as I looked at the site for the first time and that led to my having to disagree with Ray Spencer right from the start! He wanted this to be a promenade production but that wouldn’t have suited my vision of the play, and anyway, I don’t like them because they put excessive demands on people with movement or respiratory issues. They are, in fact, not really fully accessible.
(I was once invited to review one but I had to refuse because my COPD and a few problems with my back would have made it difficult. It appears that wasn’t a problem: they would get a wheelchair and have someone push me around. Would they do that for anyone in a similar condition? No, they couldn’t, so I declined.)
Ray simply said, “OK. If that’s what you want” and left me to it.
I got together a great cast. Some I’d worked with before and others were well-known NE actors whom I’d admired over the years, and, as I’d hoped, they all worked together really well. A number, actually, were Bard virgins who’d never played Shakespeare before, whilst others had—one (Donald McBride), indeed, had been a member of the RSC.
Among them were a former soap actor (Dale Meeks), another a founder member of Alan Lyddiard’s Northern Stage ensemble (Tony Neilson) and someone who had appeared in every single TV show or series set in the North East, including Byker Grove (Neil Armstrong). Oh yes, and a regular pantomime comic (Iain Cunningham) who played, you may not be surprised to know, Stephano.
And there was one whom I’d never actually met but I’d seen in a show (Heartbreak Soup) at the Edinburgh Fringe (Scott Turnbull) and was so impressed that I had to book him for Ferdinand. The actor who played Miranda (Helen Embleton) was someone I’d only worked with once before, on a touring panto, Sleeping Beauty, which I wrote and directed and in which she played Beauty and Fairy Crystal. Hardly a usual recommendation for casting in a Shakespeare production but I could see Miranda in her, which is why I booked her. And I was not disappointed.
I loved it, even though, in spite of it being August, it was bloody cold. There was no electricity supply to this part of the park so we had to bring in a generator which was parked just out of sight (and hearing) of the audience. Actors coming off the performance area would rush round to the genny and spread-eagle themselves across it to get warm!
And the changing room was the shipping container in which we stored costumes, props etc overnight, just out of sight of the performance area.
We had just over two weeks of rehearsal—finance, you know; we were paying Equity rates—so it was pretty intensive but this was the first locally produced Shakespeare production for quite a few years and everyone was determined to make it work.
And work it did. Audience response was enthusiastic and the reviews were good, so Ray asked me to return the following year with Romeo and Juliet. I agreed—of course!