The Tempest

William Shakespeare
Jermyn Street Theatre
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Tom Littler’s chamber production of Shakespeare’s probable last play is full of magic: theatrical magic and the conjuring of Prospero who controls everything that happens from the moment we first see him in his cave home with its curved shelves that look like waves or contoured landscape piled with the things that were stacked in the boat that brought him to exile or were found on this isolated island.

It is he who has created the sea storm, the tempest, we have already heard raging; he is holding a miniature version of the vessel at which it is directed and is mouthing the words of the mariners who are being shipwrecked who are seen, as in a vision, struggling against its onslaught. Michael Pennington’s Prospero seems almost maliciously pleased at the success of his stratagem but there is a tempest going on in this Prospero’s heart too. The irascible magician wreaking revenge on the people who wronged him, brought at last within range of his power; the tyrant who rules the island he has made his, is also assailed by his basic humanity, the tenderness we see in his love for his daughter which finally leads to forgiveness.

In Shakespeare’s original, that daughter, Miranda, is fifteen; they have been on the island for twelve years. This production makes it much longer, time for her to become fully adult. She may be physically grown-up and understand her father’s sexual references but there is still a child’s innocence about Kirsty Bushell’s performance. That’s not surprising, perhaps, for her father makes her sleep when he is doing things he doesn’t want her to know about, like the instructions he gives to his servant sprite, Ariel, bound to him because Prospero released her from a spell with which the former witch of the island imprisoned her.

Yes, this Ariel is a feminine spirit. Played with a fluid vivacity by Whitney Kehinde, who also sings beautifully, she performs Prospero’s behests solo, even becoming a succession of goddesses in the masque that he requires of her to beguile his daughter and the young man he seems to have picked out for Miranda. That is Ferdinand (Tam Williams), heir to Alonso, King of Naples (Jim Findley), who had allowed the usurpation of Prospero’s Milan dukedom by his brother Antonio (Richard Derrington, a snake without conscience).

King and Duke, along with Alonso’s brother Sebastian (Peter Bramhill) and courtier Gonzalo (Lynn Farleigh, making perfect sense of the change in the character’s gender), have been cast up on a different part of the island from Ferdinand while the king’s butler Stephano and serving man Trinculo find themselves elsewhere, all of them with clothes magically dry when they got to shore.

Richard Derrington appropriately doubles as the bowler-hatted Welsh butler who later will fancy himself as king of the island, giving a delightfully funny performance that is matched by Peter Bramhill’s double as Trinculo. They even have a topical nudge greeting instead of a handshake and find genuine humour in scenes with Prospero’s other slave Caliban where other productions sometimes fail, though helped by some of the cuts that Littler has made.

Caliban is another double; the maligned monster who once tried to thrust himself upon Miranda is played by a masked Tam Williams, an opposite to Ferdinand’s chastity but a contrast too between privilege and exploitation.

Caliban gets a passage of Shakespeare’s best poetry and throughout this is a well-spoken production, though style of delivery varies to match character. Pennington magisterially handles familiar speeches to make them fresh-sounding, giving clear sense to sentences that go on almost longer than thought. It’s a production with an intimacy that gives it freshness and it is full of details including some that place magic and meaning over logic: like the way that Caliban’s wrists are bound together at the end of the first act and Ferdinand’s at the start of the second, their symbolic bondage taking precedence over efficient labour.

The female casting really works too. This Ariel is like a family member and Farleigh’s Gonzalo, though bringing a smile when she does go on a bit, has a warmth that contrasts her with the other aristocrats and then finds a late echo in Prospero’s change to forgiveness. I’m less sure about the twist Littler gives to the play’s ending and what is usually interpreted as a plea to the audience, but it is another example of the fresh thinking that he has brought to this production.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton