This is a production aimed at young audiences (the theatre recommends it for age 9+) played by the theatre's resident ensemble company of six actors and director by Unicorn's artistic director Tony Graham. Some cuts and adaptation have been made to fit these aims and resources (no goddesses or minor courtiers) and there is gender- and colour-blind casting with everyone except Samantha Adam's Prospero playing two major roles and other parts as necessary. Omissions in the courtier scenes do help to move things on and what we get is a clear piece of story-telling that is visually strong and emphasises Prospero's magic in simple but effective ways. It is a production that pays great attention to detail and with seagulls in the foyer and front of house staff in sailor uniform it is well set up as a nautical adventure.
There is an excellent opening. The bare boards of the set immediately suggest a ship's deck, the storm starting with a gentle groan on a squeeze-box with those on deck becoming increasingly unstable as it rises in fury. Unusually, for this play, you can actually hear most of the lines until the tempest get really wild, so you do know what's going on. In the following scene, which is all exposition, Graham both clarifies and enlivens things by bringing on the figures of those involved in the back story in an explanatory dumb show, another piece of Prospero's magic to help Miranda (and the audience) understand.
There is never any doubt that Prospero is in control. We see he or his minions direct almost everything anyone does on his island. Being played by a woman actually emphasises how tough he is on everyone. Adam takes her time with the verse and gives him a stateliness and a masculine hardness which does not mellow until we draw near the plays end. It is Caliban you warm to (at least until you hear about his attempt to rape Miranda) and Liam Lane does not make him horrible, though scuttling around some of the time on all fours but with his back to the ground does add an element of the grotesque. He has been a natural for the education Prospero and Miranda have given him and it seems perfectly natural that Shakespeare has given him one of his finest pieces of verse. With the addition of a long black coat Lane assumes the regal authority of Alonso, King of Naples. The doubling, for all the actors, is achieved just as simply; sometimes a rapid offstage switch, sometimes being put into their costume in full view though facing upstage. Mark Jones stylish formal costumes are very effective in creating a separate set of characters for the ship borne court.
Ariel could not be more different than the Victorian idea of faery which had him usually played by a girl. John Cockerell's sweet-voiced, shock-headed sprite assumes an awkward, angled stance that reminds us of those years when he was trapped hunched up within a tree. His other role is the good old courtier Gonzalo.
Comic couple Stephano and Trinculo are Julie Hewlett and Ery Nzaramba and their scenes with Caliban work well. Under what looks a real naval tarpaulin they make a fine and funny monster. It seems totally appropriate to play them with a black South African (Xhosa?) accent which clearly identifies them as different from the nobles and though it slows down their delivery it makes it very clear. Hewlett also plays the bad Duke Antonio and Nzaramba is charming Ferdinand, though strangely his not consciously accented young Neapolitan prince has less clear diction, what may be his native Rwandan accent blurring his delivery. That does not mar his appeal to this young audience which is matched by the equally delightful Miranda of Amaka Okafor who makes her amazed delight at discovering her 'brave new world' of men ring entirely true. She too becomes a courtier as Sebastian.
Lewis Gibson' music and sound score makes a great contribution, discreetly but effectively used and always supportive. He gives us a jolly dance which Prospero calls up instead of the text's masque. The spirits Prospero calls up are in fact the audience and for a brief span they become part of the joyful action.
Adam Carrée's set, with wet looking planks reminding us of shipwreck and a fo'castle that could be cabin or cliff for Ariel to fly from itself contributes to Prospero's magic and he lights it to great effect. When he flies in a rail of largely red costumes for Trinculo and Stephano to discover you realise how restrained be has been in his use of colour apart from Prospero's gown and gold cloak but how rich he has made it feel.
It is a production that clearly worked with the school audience I saw it with who were mobbing the actors afterwards. It looks great and exploits its actors fully. In a few cases a little more work with voice coach Catherine Weate could make it even better but The Tempest is a play that demands magic and it gets it with this production.
Until 19th June 2010
Reviewer: Howard Loxton