Sunday, 27 November 2016

Review The Tempest

The Tempest
by William Shakespeare

Braces, Soil And Tears

For its first foray into Shakespeare, The Print Room, itself a magical, eccentric theatre capped by a cupola, has chosen one of the most magical of the bard's plays, The Tempest.

This production of The Tempest, directed by Simon Usher, certainly has its eccentricities and, on rare occasions, brings magic to the Notting Hill venue. Yet at other times, it remains as solidly earth-bound as the soil covering the ragged stage.

The story is archetypal - a Duke, usurped by his brother but saved by a courtier, is washed ashore on an island where he brings up his daughter, unware of her noble lineage, while exercising his power over two supernatural creatures. For this Duke has long made a study of a (never appearing) book of spells and possesses a magical cloak and staff with which he can control his island domain.

Fate - or is  it magic? - intervenes and the play starts with the conspirators, those also who acquiesced to the coup, albeit an innocent prince among them, and the faithful courier shipwrecked on the island 12 years after the enforced exile of the rightful Duke of Milan.

Yet we feel the abstract representation of the shipwreck, with a rope laid on the floor and heads ducked in buckets of the water, may have totally befuddled those who are newcomers to The Tempest.  The concept behind this version of the play remained elusive for us, although we noted how the director references Italian and Swedish translations and performances of Shakespeare in the programme.

It's the younger generation who emerge in the sharpest focus in the lens of The Print Room's production, even if this attractive interpretation is rather thrown away by the play's end. 

Bearded Kevin McMonagle, clad at first in muted gray high waisted tweed trousers, braces and shirt before he dons his enchanted seaweed cloak, is a strangely subdued. softly spoken Scottish Prospero. He's almost bureaucratic in his influence on the course of events, rather than enchantingly transformative.

Indeed further on in the play, we did wonder whether we were inhabiting the psychic space of Prospero, an old man imagining his island realm. Certainly there is a mash up in the costumes spanning the centuries and, we think, in acting styles.

Charlotte Brimble, her tones strictly received pronounciation with maybe the slightest trace of her father's burr, is at first a sturdy, Robinson Crusoe-like Miranda in grubby shorn denim trousers and top, a child of the earth. She's unused to the male gaze until the arrival of scarlet-jacketed Ferdinand (Hugh John who brings a much-needed clarity and vitality), the guileless King of Naples' son.

Unless that is, we include the unwanted attentions of Caliban (Billy Seymour), himself the monstrous "mooncalf" child of a witch and dubious paternity.

Prospero's treatment of Caliban, who comes over as a vulnerable, almost Frankenstein-like innocent, also seems wholly dubious in this version with the previous kindly treatment of Caliban betrayed by his  attempted sexual assault of Miranda downplayed.

The other supernatural creature on the isle is the enslaved Ariel pleading for her liberty - Kristin Winters in pure white tunic as if stepped out of 1920s' abstract art. As the tale unwinds, she seems more and more drawn into an early silent movie, all of which comes into its own at the beginning of the second act in a stunning visual effect.

Indeed with consistently beautiful lighting from Ben Omerod and a backdrop of waves and sky, easily becoming an embedded stage within a stage, from set designer Lee Newby, there are some gorgeous moments, particularly the masque sequences.

However the moments of beauty sometimes suffer then from over-playing and too often strike one as parachuted in. Some of the relationships also are not clear. For example, while Antonio (Callum Dixon who doubles as washed-up butler Stephano) is obviously the man who deposed Prospero, for someone who doesn't know the story, it's less than easy to understand that they are brothers.

Still, while some of the verse speaking seems to take too literally Ariel's promise to carry out Prospero's demands "- to - the - syllable", there are some pleasures.

John as Ferdinand sparks the play into more supple patterns of speech. Stephen Beard's white-haired professorial Gonzalo, Prospero's saviour years before, also has a naturalness in his delivery, overcoming the somewhat cryptic staging around him.

Paul Hamilton (who doubles as Alonso, King of Naples) also makes the cut as gangly beanie-wearing jester Trinculo. Community actor dreadlocked Herman Stephens has a distinctive, lucid debut on the professional stage as the mariner finally bringing good news.

But themes embracing, for example, the complexity of freedom and oppression, which should be distilled in a famous short episode where Ferdinand and Miranda suddenly appear playing chess, often feel truncated.

So it's an amber light for a curious curate's egg, rather muffled production redeemed by a few interesting design and staging choices and several engaging performances.  


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