Tuesday, 26 February 2008

The Tempest - Darker Arts 2008

The Tempest
Darker Arts, London, UK.

This production of The Tempest, produced by Darker Arts and directed by Helen Tennison, starts off with the most terrifying shipwreck I have ever experienced in a play. As the audience file in and coats and drinks are shuffled about, Miranda is seated on a pile of ancient books, playing with an oversized chess piece. Then without warning the room is plunged into darkness. Thunder crashes, lightning flashes, sailors leap around the walls and a barrel rolls thunderously and rather alarmingly down the stairs between the audience seating. The Rosemary Branch Theatre, located above a pub of the same name, is tiny, seating just 57 people and with a performance space of just six metres by five, so the effect of all this noise is as though a bomb has exploded and the chaos is reverberating around the room. It certainly makes one pay attention.

This is a production that, unusually, seems to give equal weight to all of its characters, keeping the play in perfect balance and sustaining audience interest. Each character is fully-developed, something not always achieved in smaller productions, and especially impressive considering that five of the seven cast members take on more than one role. James McLaren deserves particular note for his portrayal of both Ferdinand and Gonzalo, characters at opposite ends of the age range and yet both played in a fully believable and memorable manner. As Ferdinand he leaps into Miranda's arms with such passion in his eyes that one could believe he was truly in love. As Gonzalo he dodders and quakes, drones and stammers, and is in all ways a feeble but good-hearted old man. McLaren should also be congratulated on his quick changes from one character to the next and back again, something he achieves in just seconds.

Gonzalo and the other shipwrecked gentlemen - Matthew Mellalieu as Alonso (regal), Stephen Middleton as Antonio (snakish), and Daniel Mutlow as Sebastian (shifty), - appear in top hats and tailcoats, tugging at their velvet cravats and dabbing their faces with large handkerchiefs. Their attitude at being washed up on a savage island is one of distaste rather than dismay. In their other roles, Middleton (Trinculo) and Mellalieu (Stephano) are northern drunkards, tripping about and singing bawdy songs. Both succeed in drawing out the comedy from their characters and scenes. In what seems to be becoming a trend in the casting of the character, Caliban is a surprisingly handsome native, mud-covered and well-muscled. Daniel Mutlow plays the character as confused, damaged, and childlike. He is betrayed as well as betraying, comic and pitiable at the same time. This Caliban is more than a one-dimensional savage.

Raymond Coker, in doublet and hose as Prospero, is proud and upright, commanding authority without raising his voice. He is a man who lives in his own head as much as on his island, pained by the betrayal he has been unable to speak of until now. Miranda, (the diminutive Leann O'Kasi), is a girl-woman, truly in wonder of the world around her. She questions and is concerned, striving to do her father's will and yet also more and more swayed by her own desires. By turns she plays like a child and loves like a woman. It is interesting to note that when Ferdinand is revealed to his father to still be alive, he and Miranda are quietly playing in a corner, more like children than a married couple.

Jason Eddy as Ariel is a bird-like spirit, flashing sulky eyes, and hissing at Prospero and his demands. With heavy eye make-up and feathers twisted in his hair he is exotic and ethereal, at one point even growing wings. His movements are those of a cat, supple and slow, twisting himself around the walls, hanging from the ceiling, and curling up in a suspended fishing net. His physicality is what makes this Ariel so memorable. Bound by Prospero he has to live his life suspended: leaping from ledge to ledge, never touching the ground. Finally freed we see him descend and walk on island earth for the first time.

The set for this piece is deceptively simple: a large green sheet partly suspended from the walls, a net and ropes hanging from the ceiling, a pile of ancient books. And yet these serve as everything that the play needs. The sheet becomes magic cloak and plain gaberdine, the sea and a trap for traitors, changing curtain and projection screen. At one point, creepy face shapes push though the cloth, and spirit arms reach out to pull the unwary in. Projection effects are used for the wedding ceremony of Miranda and Ferdinand, with still images of the Goddesses appearing on a screen as recorded voices speak their lines. For me this only partly worked. It did manage to create a different atmosphere but the magical effect was lessened by having photos of different sizes (which made it look like the slideshow it was), and by the purely technical issue of having the projected images fractured by the makeshift screen. The lighting of the production was, on the whole, excellent, with just the right balance to create intimacy and magic. My only criticism would be of the overuse of the mirrorball, which was rather distracting in that it shone on the audience as well as the performers.

This is a sensitive and well-thought out production of The Tempest, and one which maintains a balance between traditional interpretation and creative realization. Director Tennison, her cast and crew should congratulate themselves on such a big feat for a small theatre company. 

This review was originally published on The Shakespeare Revue.

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