By Tom Pymer
The Tempest was Shakespeare’s last solo work, reputedly the one he was most fond of and almost certainly the only play that was entirely his own work, with no source material or inspiration. It tells the story of Prospero (or in this case Prospera), exiled Duchess of Milan now living as a wizard on a magical island with her daughter Miranda and her slaves, the spirits Ariel and Caliban, who concocts a plan to restore her Dukedom and find a husband for Miranda. Sightline and Suffragette have chosen well for their latest production.
Among the cast, I was struck by Alex Ottie and Esther Levin in their comical parts as the drunk servants Trinculo and Stephano, who were easily the funniest people in the play and made excellent use of their sole prop (a bottle of whiskey). The characters of Sebastien (Grace Brimacombe-Rand) and Antonio (Jack de Deney) were also funny at first in their repeated cynical comments about the speeches of the elderly Gonzalo, played with great skill by Isaac Theaker, but quickly showed their darker side and became increasingly more sinister, especially de Deney. Molly Goetzee and Aaron Rozanski were the archetypal happy young teenage couple.
However, there were three parts I was struck by in particular. The play’s chief exceptionalism is that of a female Prospero. The move made a different dynamic between Prospero and Miranda: that of a highly protective mother who has had to survive on her own, and her more rebellious daughter, as opposed to the norm where Prospero is a strong patriarchal figure and Miranda a great deal more subdued. Florence Petrie did the part of “Prospera” proud: her strength of will, grit and power were obvious. From giving Ferdinand her daughter in marriage to passing judgement on her usurping brother, Petrie was the mistress of every scene she appeared in, and definitely had Prospera’s strength of will.
Furthermore, there was the decision to cast three different people as Ariel: namely Aarnav Sharma, Lucy Little and Helena Baker. This emphasised the ethereal nature of the spirit as the lines swapped from character to character, and their long flowing movements, whilst typical of the character of Ariel, nonetheless lost none of their charm or effectiveness. The Ariels between them did a very good job of presenting a trapped nature and the desire for freedom, whilst maintaining a gentle and poetic soul.
As usual, Ariel was given an antithesis in Caliban, played by Sophie Cullis. Whereas Ariel was dancing and aloof, Cullis stalked across the floor like an animal, shouting curses on her mistress and generally getting into mischief. Like Ariel, there was little in Cullis’ performance that deviated from the typical idea of Caliban but again this did not make it a poorer performance and Cullis fulfilled the role very well.
The subject of Ariel and Caliban has brought to mind the costumes and set design. Relatively simple though they were, the humans wearing white shirts and black trousers and the spirits in long flowing pieces of exotically-coloured cloth, they were very effective. The spirits’ costumes emphasised their ethereal nature. Caliban too was effective in her black, almost reptilian clothes. In the same way, the multi-coloured cloth used for the backdrop lent an exotic feeling to the set, which was very welcome considering it is being staged in Hild Bede Chapel. The lighting too was excellently staged, in many different colours to create different effects.
Another thing I must draw attention to was the dancing. The play managed to mix in moments of very good dancing with music played alternately on cajóns and speakers. Occasionally, I felt like the dancing was maybe a little out of time with the music, but on the whole it felt very much in place with the play.
There is often a danger with Shakespeare plays as regards emotion. Shakespeare tends to be very good with anger, happiness and thoughtfulness, but not so much with other emotions. I regret to say that this was a trap that the play fell into. There were certainly scenes where one felt a greater swell of emotion might have been welcome: the actors did seem a little too willing to just accept the existence of magic and get on with it. It did feel like there was a lack of necessary emotion. However, as I have said, this is a common danger with Shakespeare plays so this did not, as a matter of fact, lower the quality of the performance, and indeed I would say that it was significantly above average.
It would be inaccurate to say that the performance brought anything new to the play, but this perhaps is not the point. I think I can say very safely that the play was done well. On the whole, a traditional and solid performance of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known, but surely favourite, plays.