“the verse reading of Michael Pennington in this space is inspiring”
How can a venue as intimate as the Jermyn Street Theatre manage a production of The Tempest? Director Tom Littler pulls it off with an ensemble of just eight players and the mighty Michael Pennington as Prospero. The set (Set & Costume Design by Neil Irish & Anett Black) hints at a desert island existence: bits of boat, an oar, sheeting that could be old sail, seashells. Wavy shelves line the walls, Prospero’s all-important books lying this way and that. An island soundscape pervades the space (Composer & Sound Design by Max Pappenheim), waves roll along the beach, exotic birds tweet.
Prospero, using a model boat as an aid, conjures up a storm and we see a group of mariners behind a gauze fearing for their lives. Pennington possesses a calm authority which emphasises the frailty of the enchanter. The honey tone of his speaking voice is pleasing to the ear but, with book in hand throughout, he is limited in his movement. Communication with the audience is not as intense as it could be in this miniature space but when he does glance up with a whimsical smile and a twinkle in his eyes, we see a master actor at work.
The success of this production lies with the superlative actors’ skills in doubling roles. Richard Derrington and Peter Bramhill have two double acts. Firstly, as Antonio and Sebastian, in silk dressing gowns, they are snide and condescending towards the King’s advisor Gonzalo (Lynn Farleigh) and then menacingly circle the sleeping King (Jim Findley), knives in hands, plotting murder. Some moments later and they are back as Stephano in a thermal onesie, and Trinculo in tails and bowler hat – the comic relief, breaking the fourth wall with their drunken jests. Tam Williams has no easy task doubling Caliban – half naked, bruised and scarred, a cowl covering his head, at his best when whispering the pathos of the creature – and a rather wet-behind-the-ears Prince Ferdinand in striped pyjamas.
Whitney Kehinde’s Ariel holds everything together. Harnessing her inner Puck, she weaves around the stage, arms whirling. Two of her songs stand out – Full Fathom Five and Where the Bee Sucks – in which the verse becomes part of her magical incantation emphasised by haunting electronic effects.
Rachel Pickup’s Miranda lights up the stage. Her love-at-first-sight scene is delightful although this Ferdinand is less convincing in showing that the attraction is mutual. And Miranda’s wide-eyed amazement at seeing more humans for the first time drew many smiles behind the masks of this audience.
This is an effective but low-key Tempest. Prospero’s valedictory speech in which he intends to break his staff and drown his book is deliberately underplayed and the Gauguin-inspired wedding masque does not convince. But the verse reading of Michael Pennington in this space is inspiring. The Jermyn Street Theatre’s auditorium, in which you can hear every nuance of every word, is as much the star of the show as the actors upon the stage.
“a thoughtful presentation, enhanced by the intimacy of the space, and the skilled performances”
Can The Tempest—a play full of echoes of Shakespeare’s imminent retirement from a rich and successful theatrical life—be played in a small theatre, and on a pocket handkerchief sized stage? It turns out that it can. It can, that is, if you have Michael Pennington for your Prospero, supported by a cast of talented actors speaking with understanding of a text that contains some of Shakespeare’s most memorable lines. And it should, if you have a director (Tom Littler) who knows how to put on big plays in small spaces.
You might be forgiven for being sceptical. This Tempest demands work from the audience, beginning with a search to find the venue among all the clothing establishments in Jermyn Street, long the haunt of London’s haute monde. But when you eventually discover the modest entrance, near Waterstones, and descend into the performance space, you will be charmed. The stage is literally tucked into a corner, and designers Neil Irish and Anett Black make the most of it by creating a wall of curving shelves that contain all the flotsam and jetsam of Prospero’s past life as Duke of Milan. Add to that a couple of curtains to create additional spaces, and you can conjure up an enchanted isle quite effectively. Black and Irish were inspired by the experiences and art of Gauguin in Tahiti in the design—hence a lovely sketch of distant vistas on one of the curtains, and a medley of different cultural influences in the costume designs as well. Ariel’s costume and make up stands out in this respect. The costumes are all cleverly made from bits of cloth that could have been washed up from the shipwreck that brought Prospero and his daughter Miranda to the island. Add to that William Reynolds’ lighting design, haunting music and sound by Max Pappenheim (always essential in The Tempest), and you see an unexpectedly rich canvas on which the production has been created. But this is not easily apparent. You have to take the time—to look, and to listen—to all the island’s voices.
Watch for several innovations. The opening scene of the storm at sea that brings Prospero’s enemies to his shore is cut—instead it is Prospero who speaks the lines while holding a ship tossing and turning in his hands. It’s an effective way of emphasizing the fact that Prospero is a magician who has conjured up the storm. When Miranda enters, the audience is as ready as she is, to hear the story of how father and daughter arrived on the island. There is some judicious doubling. Tam Williams plays both Caliban and Ferdinand—and it works because Williams plays Caliban with a white canvas hood over his head. This device makes Caliban an oddly sympathetic character right from the start, and Williams’ skilled performance means that it takes a while to realize that one actor is playing both roles. Peter Bramhill doubles as Sebastian, Ferdinand’s uncle, with the comic role of Trinculo. Richard Derrington doubles as Prospero’s usurping brother, Antonio, with the drunken butler Stephano. It is a treat to see Lynn Farleigh take on the role of Gonzalo, and she brings a rare clarity and power to his lines.
Whitney Kehinde, as Ariel, is a wonderful sprite with just the right amount of enthusiasm for her work, coupled with fear that Prospero will not honour his promise and release her when her tasks are done. Kehinde is a genuine triple threat and a talent to watch. In fact, the only major weakness in this production is the lack of chemistry between Ferdinand and Miranda, despite the best efforts of Tam Williams (without a hood) and Kirsty Bushell (Miranda). And it is the greatest pleasure to watch Michael Pennington, as Prospero, literally hold the whole production in the palm of his hand. He manages to bring off both the power and vulnerability of the role in ways that allow us to maintain sympathy for the character, while questioning Prospero’s more morally dubious actions.
For clarity of insight into Shakespeare’s last great play, take a chance on the Jermyn Street Theatre’s production. It’s a thoughtful presentation, enhanced by the intimacy of the space, and the skilled performances.