The Tempest

William Shakespeare, adapted and directed by Simon Beyer
Good Night Out Presents
Cock Tavern Theatre

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Shakespeare wrote for an all male company and so, though they have some fine female roles most of his plays need largely male casts. At the modern Bankside Shakespeare's Globe there have been all female casts to balance the all male cast of their 'original practices' productions and there have been many famous occasions when women have played the great female roles - but these have been a case of gender blind casting, women playing men. In this production Simon Beyer has not only used a female company (save one young male) but has reversed the gender of all the characters - well, all the human ones. Here we have not Prospero but Prospera, the Duchess of Milan, who instead of a daughter Miranda has a son called Mirundo and the gender reversal is carried right through from noble(wo)men to boatswain.

It is not clear from the production why he has made this reversal, beyond that of providing opportunities for female actors. It does not seem to be offering any particularly new interpretation of the text, though it does produce a situation where a mother is warning her son's female admirer against any attempt to seduce him, which suggests a mistrust of female intentions where sexual matters are concerned. A rather girly Ferdinina (Jordanna Tin), given to fluttery lashes, may be a flirt but, despite a bright red dress, is hardly a predatory come-on type but in the masque scene the three goddesses, who contrarily keep their female identity (Katie Elizabeth, Amy Clarke, Lydia Outhwaite), are all touchy feely seductiveness, fondling both the youngsters - offering temptation rather than the blessing of the text.

Perhaps the intention is to make the message 'beware the women!' The two particularly wicked characters, the Usurper Duchess, played by Antonia Jemma Hilton James) and the Queen of Naples sister Sebastina (Lydia Outhwaite) are heavily played as savage-tongued trouble makers with just a hint that they could be a couple of bitchy dykes. Prosperina herself is, of course, a control freak and with a bang of her staff determines exactly what shall be visible to others or not. Karen Paullada performs her with a strong, rather tight-jawed school-marmy authority, handling the text with confidence, though with some deliberately odd scansion. She gives the production a solid centre.

As Prospera's spirit servant Ariélle (sic), Natasha James is kept busy controlling the other characters, moving around on the walls as well as on the ground. She has an interesting moment when, cat-like, she rubs herself against her mistress but a tactic of head tilting and ingratiating bending and bobbing like a twee little-girl trying to get a sweet from auntie, was an irritation that belied the suggestion of cat-like cunning. Caliban was understandably twitchy but Clare Cameron kept her tics under control. She hasn't yet quite fully found her character but does suggest that with a good scrub and a Tinny and Susannah make-over the monster could be something different. She is saddled with having to chant 'Ban ban Caliban/ Got a new mistress get a new woman!' - a rewrite that just doesn't have the right rhythm and she is made to take 'the isle is full of noises ,' which shows us that other side of Caliban, far too fast. The comedy scenes are played with gusto: Hannah Wood's Trincula is a delightful, believable binge-drinking Essex girl, though Jane Bowhay makes Stephanie too much the stage drunk. All the cast except Prospera are also playing spirits or doubling other roles and the production uses them skilfully against a set that suggests seashore wrack and wreckage.

Playing about two hours, the play has been quite heavily cut which has solved some of its problems but also removed some of its beauties: the richness of the verse tends to be sacrificed for speed. The opening scene of the play, on deck during a violent storm at sea - the tempest of the title - is not any easy one to stage, especially with the minimalist resources of this venue. With flashing hand-held torches and a cacophony of voices Beyer has produced a wonderful effect of chaos but it is impossible to understand anything that is being said and there is no clue to what is going on. Tough luck if you don't know the play already, especially since Mirundo's description of it in the scene that follows did not come over clearly either, if it was there. At first this young actor was taking his lines too quickly for articulation and comprehension and often shouting them, something to which many of these performers made resort. Only towards the end of the play did they seem to adjust their voices to match the venue and by then they had forced themselves so hard that they had largely lost the energy that gives performance life.

The theatre at the Cock Tavern is a new venture for Good Night Out Presents; this is their first production at the new venue. They have ongoing development plans for the theatre and I hope they will include making the acoustics of its present hard blank walls kinder to the actors.

Until 7th March 2009

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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