The Tempest

William Shakespeare
Jermyn Street Theatre

Tam Williams (Ferdinand), Richard Derrington (Antonio), Michael Pennington (Prospero) Credit: Steve Gregson
Rachel Pickup (Miranda) and Michael Pennington (Prospero) Credit: Steve Gregson
Whitney Kehinde as Ariel Credit: Steve Gregson
Rachel Pickup (Miranda) and Tam Williams (Caliban) Credit: Steve Gregson
Jim Findley (Alonso) and Lynn Farleigh (Gonzalo) Credit: Steve Gregson
Peter Bramhill as Trinculo Credit: Steve Gregson
Richard Derrington (Stephano), Jim Findley (Alonso) and Peter Bramhill (Trinculo) Credit: Steve Gregson
Whitney Kehinde as Ariel Credit: Steve Gregson

Michael Pennington’s Prospero is a surprise. Is he meant to be Shakespeare writing and rewriting his final play, his powers fading (“an insubstantial pageant faded”)? That is the only explanation I can see for him being on the book throughout, his book of spells. His long robe over whites, red socks in open sandals, modern spectacles and a Lenin-style cap is a mixture of signals, old age prophet and rebel. Or is he playing “bear with my weakness; my old brain is troubled”? Time to make way for the young, Shakespeare is saying.

Was this in the original pre-lockdown production eighteen months ago or has Pennington’s memorising brain taken a hit during lockdown—I know mine has. I hope he is not saying farewell with this role, one he’s not done before, as Shakespeare did to his own career, retiring to Stratford. I suspend my disbelief for this is an interesting production with much to mull over, not least the doubling of roles, of which later.

Is the concept that he is still at the rehearsal stage as he conjures up his cast? He makes notes in the margins. Sits at the side watching his tale unfold at his command. Finally restored to his former royal self, he comes on dressed in top hat, black frock coat, shiny black shoes and elegant scarf, a Victorian gentleman. That’s a surprise, too, a contrast to his shabby chic cell with its books, African art and undulating shelving out of Ron Arad.

‘Bounded in a nutshell’, on Jermyn Street Theatre’s tiny stage, director Tom Littler’s production of The Tempest has vast aspirations within an economy of means. Ingenious set and time-transcending costume designs by Neil Irish and Anett Black transport our imaginations to African lands. Two curtains serve as sail and exotic landscape backcloth, and a model boat held by Prospero is the shipwreck he has caused. Max Pappenheim’s isle full of noises sound design and Will Reynolds's lighting design provide the magical effects.

Ferdinand (in check PJs) and Caliban (naked but for grubby loincloth and dingy, white, face-obscuring, hooded mask, hands tied) are played by the same actor (Tam Williams terrific). It gives rise to thoughts of male duality. Miranda beware… though Rachel Pickup’s Miranda will have no problems holding her own. Ariel is female, a native girl with painted face and arms. Whitney Kehinde is excellent in the role, and, in feathered headdress and a change of tone, takes on the three goddesses in the masque as well (movement direction by Julia Cave).

Patriarchy, entitlement, and colonialism may be modern interpretations, but Prospero is not entirely blame free. Caliban is enslaved by him, as is Ariel, and he is manipulative to the nth degree, but he is self aware, and knows it is time to put past grudges away. After he has taught those who have wronged him a lesson. They are duly chastised, even though Antonio and Sebastian’s worse natures are revealed.

Peter Bramhill and Richard Derrington, doubling respectively as Sebastian and comic Trinculo, Antonio and drunken bowler-hatted butler Stephano, are the energising comedy double act as the lower orders. Bramhill, particularly, brings a lot of vim to his Northern-accented, fourth wall breaking Trinculo. Jim Findley as King Alonso is not a cruel sort, more confused, and Lynn Farleigh, in Victorian mobcap, is a gentle courteous Gonzalo. The shipwrecked courtiers, by the way, are all in night attire, caught out by the storm. I do briefly wonder if Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear had a hand in this.

COVID closed theatre doors 16 March 2020. Tom Littler’s The Tempest production had given just six performances of a five-week run. Eighteen months later, here it is picking up where it left off. What resilience. We are still living though our tempest, people kept apart on a small island, awaiting the magician who can set us free. As Tom Littler says, "this play is about isolation and the joy of encountering long lost people—it has gained new and unexpected resonances."

Reviewer: Vera Liber