“a performance of enormous range and sparkling energy”
There’s something remarkable happening at the picturesque Watermill Theatre in Newbury. On the night that London theatres closed and coronavirus gloom descended upon the nation, I was privileged to be part of an evening of pure enchantment, as a musical over eight years in the making made its debut on this most creative of stages.
First, forget whatever other associations the title The Wicker Husband may conjure. This has nothing to do with the film The Wicker Man. Second, prepare to be transported into a bright and delightful mythic world that is based on a short story by Ursula Wills-Jones and wonderfully adapted for the stage by Rhys Jennings (book) and Darren Clark (music and lyrics).
This sweet and affecting story is profoundly moral in an entirely natural way. It is a very English tale of the trees and water that somehow seems to draw both on Yorkshire mystery plays and American musical theatre. It asks the questions that social media so often gets wrong. Where does beauty really reside? And what’s it like to be an outsider, shunned by all the pretty people?
A multi-talented company of 12 are joined on the Watermill’s tiny stage by a number of wicker puppets made and operated in the exposed Japanese ‘bunraku’ style (think Warhorse). These extraordinary and beautiful creations by Finn Caldwell and team are brought to life by Eilon Morris, Yazdan Qafouri and Scarlet Wilderink. Qafouri (a winner of BBC One’s Let It Shine) has one of the many fine voices in this show. He is more than matched by Laura Johnson as the Ugly Girl, for whom the wicker husband is created. Here is a performance of enormous range and sparkling energy.
Julian Forsyth has a pivotal role as the Old Basketmaker whose weaving gives new life to the willow withies, sea grass and blackthorn. He has an impressive stage presence and a fine singing voice. Other members of this cracking and committed cast are Jack Beale, Angela Caesar (who as well as being an actor is also an opera singer and one of three fine violinists in the show), Claire-Marie Hall, Stephen Leask and Zoë Rainey.
The show interweaves puppetry with some two dozen catchy ballads, several dance routines (Steven Harris) and any number of opportunities for the cast’s instrumental skills to shine, with some highly effective lighting by Hartley TA Kemp, clean and effective design by Anna Kelsey and inspired direction by Charlotte Westenra.
As the programme describes, this production is the result of several dedicated years of workshops, competitions and mentoring. It is a fine testimony to the enormous creativity of the British stage and a highly recommended antidote to much else that besets us now.
“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.