The Tempest

William Shakespeare
Stage Punk Productions
White Bear Theatre

The Tempest

I have seen rather a lot of productions of The Tempest, from bare boards versions to the intensely pictorial with painted gauzes, huge ships and waves populated by neriäds and sea creatures. It is certainly not always those with the most resources that come up with the best results. However, in this tale of a deposed duke ruling an isle where he and his daughter are the only humans through magic Shakespeare asks for a shipwreck, a magical banquet, strange monsters and a masque with goddesses and their attendants. It takes some ingenuity to accomplish this in the back room of a pub.

Director Simon Jay and his designer Anna Sobeleva are not lacking in ideas. Taking inspiration perhaps from the chess game which young lovers Ferdinand and Miranda play, the walls and floor are given a fractured chequer pattern in green and red. The coloured squares pattern also appears on the costume of magician Prospero’s servant spirit Ariel, the only true native of the island that we see. There are less regular markings on his slave Caliban and they appear as outline squares on some of the clothes of his daughter Miranda, who has been reared there. Prospero, who when Duke preferred his library to the council chamber, wears rumpled shirt and track suit trousers, a tail-suit jacket as a magic cloak and smart white tuxedo when he wants to formally assert his rank but his baton-like magic wand is also green and red.

The incomers, the shipwrecked usurping brother and his companions, the King of Naples and his son, a faithful courtier and some of their crew may be like chess-pieces under Prospero’s control but their faces are decorated by coloured lozenges and other designs and shapes, with clown whiteface. There is a hint of playing cards about them and their eclectic costumes include schoolboy ties and Elizabethan ruffs that could have come from some nursery dressing up chest.

The opening scenes of this play are always a challenge. First a noisy confusing scene of shipwreck that is difficult to make comprehensible and then a long scene in which, after establishing Prospero is responsible for the storm, he tells his daughter of his deposition and how they came to the island, a drawn-out exposition to give the audience the backstory.

Jay opens his production with a tattooed Ariel singing one of his songs (or in this case hers, for the “tricksy spirit” is played by Maya Thomas) and then brings forward Ariel’s report of the shipwreck and how he carried out Prospero’s instructions. Though the song is too drawn out an introduction, this seemed a brilliant way of handling the shipwreck, but then, having told us about it, he next plays out the now-redundant on-board scene with a row of actresses holding onto a rope. They are the least likely mariners I ever saw (though to be fair nobles outnumber sailors four to one), the text becomes incomprehensible and it seemed to go on forever. This all makes it much more difficult for the actor playing Prospero in the scene that follows.

Matthew Ward’s Prospero, whom we first discover still wielding his magic wand, looks benign but is given to sudden shouting that breaks through a quiet calmness. Though he may claim things are “safely ordered” we are probably intended to sense a bitterness and anger simmering beneath the restraint that the actor doesn’t entirely succeed in showing, though it sometimes seems to make his treatment of the verse less flowing. It is a performance that suggests more potential than is actually achieved. It gains in assurance towards the end of the play, when Prospero knows that he has won and when he parts from Ariel and he is truly moving in his final epilogue, directly addressed to the audience and played after the rest of the cast have taken their curtain call.

Ariel, her hands rarely still but flowing through the air in fluttering figures and moving like a dancer, sings pleasantly, but the settings make the songs a little too extended and the constant agitation though emphasising her airy nature, seems to dominate the text rather than grow out of it so that the words themselves get lost.

The same is even more true of Caliban, here also female. Rather than besmirch Yuriria Fanjul’s good looks with monstrousness in costume or makeup, this production has seized on Prospero’s threat to “rack thee with old cramps fill all they bones with aches” and has her continually scrabbling at her body to ease the irritation. Thank goodness she stopped scratching when she came to “The isle is full of noises” and we could hear her properly, undistracted, for while dedicated to the physical, tour de force though it may be, communication is sadly depleted. In fact you really can’t play Caliban so obviously female. It is part of the plot that he has tried have sex with Miranda and even if you treat that as a lesbian advance what about his claim “I had peopled else this isle with Calibans”.

Don’t think I’m against cross-gender casting (either way) but you have either got to actually change the character (as in productions where Prospero becomes Prospera) and tinker with gender specific text or actually play the opposite sex and the character as written. There has to be a logic the audience can recognize and understand even if it is not that of the world outside the play. As Gonzalo, the courtier who aided Prospero and has baby daughter when they went into exile, Naomi Westerman gives an intelligent and well spoken performance but she wears a school tie, and looks like a prefect at a good school for girls. It is the best performance of the off-island characters, strong enough for one not to think about gender, but could she really have been around as a responsible adult as long ago as Miranda’s babyhood?

Miranda herself (Georgina Morell) tends to primness as befits, perhaps, someone brought up in isolation by her father and lacks the sense of the wide-eyed girl finding a “brave new world that has such wonders in it.” She needs to be more the fairy tale princess if she is going to match the extraordinarily youthful Ferdinand – who looks exactly like a little boy pretending to be Prince Charming. Bill Parfitt plays him very tentatively at first with almost no projection but seems to gain confidence and handles the text well once you can hear it clearly. Even though there is a little touching that might worry a protective father, there is no real sense of the strong physical attraction that makes Prospero insist on forbearance.

The magically appearing feast is cut and the goddesses masque performed by just one performer with a cleverly designed mask that allows her to be all three goddesses in turn addressing the audience as their attendants. It’s an ingenious idea but these goddesses address each other, and its point apart from any visual effect is the flowery classicism of their verse designed to satisfy Jacobean courtly taste. Two of the goddesses are given country accents, one of them played grotesquely bent, the other back to front, though when she gets to Juno the text is very well delivered showing what a fine job the actress Jennifer Quinn could have made of delivering all of it. As she has been asked to play it, what comes first becomes largely unintelligible, making the scene drawn out and boring.

Sadly the comic scenes don’t take off either. Just one laugh in the whole play the night I saw it. Tipsy butler Stephano is played with a high pitched campness. Did I really hear him say to Trinculo a line changed to “we will be king and queen” or was that my imagination? This should be a great double act but good clowning needs more than it gets here. One cannot help wondering how much rehearsal this cast had for a run that is shorter than many production’s previews. Not enough to recognise the problems, which is a shame when some of the cast are putting in such energy and dedication.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton