There are comedies, and then again, there are comedies. The Tempest, I have always found, although a “comedy”, isn’t very funny. I’ve seen it a few times, read it, studied it, but whenever it looms on my horizon again I think to myself – oh yes. That play I don’t really get at all. Still, you never stop learning, so I’m always willing to give it another stab.
A few weeks ago I remember telling someone there’s no point being a Shakespeare purist because you can always play them “straight” any time and they’ll still work. No modern production of a Shakespeare play is ever going to destroy the original; and the current interest in shaking up Shakey gives you a chance on a new perspective, uncovering some deeper themes, emphasising the plays’ relevance for today. And I stand by that. However, I have to admit that as I went into the interval of this brand new production of The Tempest, I found my tolerance for the shake-up was being severely tested. Not that I wasn’t enjoying it – far from it – but Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s version is such a long way from the original, that it’s less of an adaptation and more of a serving suggestion. I was talking to another chap at the urinals during the interval (as you do, sometimes) and he said, “well, it may be the Tempest, but it’s not how I remember it”. I made understanding and conciliatory noises. “Mind you, that was sixty years ago” he added.
And there’s the rub. In these tense times where the younger generation are accusing the old ‘uns of skewing the referendum result, there may be considerable differences between what the young and old want to see in the theatre. This definitely is a young person’s show, being a co-production between the National Youth Theatre and local performers with an association with the University of Northampton’s drama department and others. As we discovered in the Q&A session after the show (which Mrs Chrisparkle reluctantly stayed for and ended up thoroughly enjoying) there was a considerable degree of input from the cast in creating the adaptation, and it was constantly changing, even during previews, as they were trying to make it as relevant as possible to today’s situation. And I realised that, as I have seen more traditional productions of this play before which have always baffled me, this time, with liberties as long as your arm being taken, the play made much more sense. It’s a Child is Father to the Man moment. Wordsworth would have been so proud.
This adaptation sees much changing of relationships and sex. Male Prospero, Sebastian, Gonzalo and Stephano become female Prosper, Simona, Greta and Stephanie. Antonio becomes Anton; Prosper and Miranda are sisters (instead of father/daughter); Alonso and Ferdinand are brothers (instead of father/son). And there are six Ariels. Yes, six. Not so that Prosper can tune into Radio Luxembourg (and yes I know that ages me) but something obscure to do with Sycorax’s cruel treatment of the little sprite before the show starts. Actually the six Ariels work incredibly well. Not just because they can act as stage clearer-uppers, but because they can give the role more diversity and characterisation. There’s cheeky Ariel and sombre Ariel, happy Ariel and mysterious Ariel, and so on. It also enhances the sense of magic and sorcery that permeates the entire play. Everyone, whether spirit or not, is at Prosper’s beck and call – she completely rules the roost. This production highlights quite how manipulative the character is; it also brings forward Miranda’s resourcefulness – in this production she is able to subdue Caliban by physical strength and that’s no mean feat. Anton and Simona get a sexual frisson when planning to overthrow Alonso and Greta and take advantage of their victims’ temporary sleepiness to nip off stage for a quickie – very nicely done. I don’t suppose that ever happened with Antonio and Sebastian; but who knows?
Visually the production has tremendous impact. The massive tempest with which the play opens (or in this case, nearly opens, as it is dovetailed into scene two) is seen as a contained but nevertheless brutally wet affair, on the other side of the curtains of Prosper and Miranda’s bedroom. I have read other reports that say it’s visually stunning but you can’t hear a word that the cast are shouting to each other out there on that tossed boat. That is indeed true; fortunately, our performance was “audio described” which I personally always find extremely helpful – although it also makes it very clear when the cast go wrong and miss a chunk out of a scene (no names, no packdrill). The long and seemingly narrow set leading to a secret garden at the back worked extremely well; as did the three doors in a row that fell into place plunging us into instant imprisonment. The lighting too, is extraordinarily good, nowhere more so than in the chilling scene where Ariel (in his various guises) gets to vengeful grip with Alonso, Anton and Simona, spotlighting their individual tortures with gruesome starkness.
Bringing this all to life is a fantastic young cast who work together as a brilliant ensemble but who also all have their individual moments to shine. Dominating proceedings is Sophie Walter as Prosper, manipulating all and sundry with a flick of her pencil; she has a fine air of authority and dignity which is perfect for the part and tellingly summons up all the character’s self-obsessed heroism. Beth Markey gives a great performance as her junior sidekick Miranda, apparently placid and obedient in love and respect, but becoming tough as old boots when dealing with Caliban. Charlie Clee is perfect casting for expressing Alonso’s outwardly noble demeanour mixed with his sense of anxiety and innate cowardice; Joe Law gives us a very wise and physically comic Trinculo and there’s a hilarious presentation of Stephanie by Sophie Guiver, who absolutely nails the drunk act as well as her besotted relationship with Caliban. Jay Mailer gets all the wry humour out of the character of Ferdinand, and Gabriel Akamo uses his fantastic stage presence to give us an imposing but quite sensitive Caliban, who’s not as monstrous as Shakespeare would like us to think. And hats off to the mix-and-match Ariel actors, who present him as harpy, gimp, society diva and workhorse. Mrs C thought the shiny silver-grey dresses the female Ariels wore reminded her of bridesmaids from one of the more cash-stretched episodes of Don’t Tell The Bride. I couldn’t possibly comment.
This highly enjoyable adaptation takes Shakespeare’s text by the throat and thrashes it around like a Dobermann puppy. Very original, full of life and attack, making the most of what humour there is and emphasising its relevance for today. Congratulations on an excellent production – and thank you for finally making me understand the play!