“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.
Shakespeare in the Garden – The Turk’s Head, Twickenham
Reviewed – 25th September 2020
“The cast is definitely not short of energy and enthusiasm, and, as an audience, that is infectious”
Open Bar have been putting on Shakespeare productions in pub gardens since 2015; their mission statement, clearly set out in the digital programme, is ‘to create fun, clear reinventions of the Bard’s best’ which both ‘Shakespeare aficionados and first timers’ can enjoy. Six actors take on the multiple roles, with all the fast and furious costume changes you’d expect. The text is sprinkled with contemporary references and direct address, and the actors steer the Shakespearian ship with barrels of ‘lets-all-have-a-great-time’ gusto. The cast is definitely not short of energy and enthusiasm, and, as an audience, that is infectious. The problem lies with the fact that frequently the actual play gets lost in the fun.
Given that the rambunctious approach is clearly Open Bar’s brand, The Tempest seems an odd choice. The late plays are all a good deal more cerebral in tone, and The Tempest is no exception, taking on such mighty themes as colonisation and the nature of power and forgiveness; it is also, in many ways, Shakespeare’s examination of his own art, and the power of theatrical magic to transform. Whilst a pub garden on a chilly Autumn night may not be the right place for a deeply political take on the play, there could have been a lot more made of the magic, and, highly skilful though it undoubtedly was, Ariel’s aerial athletics were no substitute for the astonishing conjuring tricks of the language itself. Nicky Diss’s direction relied heavily on Vicky Gaskin’s movement direction, and too often the text was lost in the physicality of the performance. At times, this meant a lack of clarity with regard to plot, and at others, lack of poetry. At no point in the production did ‘the enchanted isle’ genuinely seem a place of wonder.
That said, there were some terrific moments, and some fine performances too. Special mention here to Jessica Alade (Miranda/Antonia) who spoke the verse with subtle poetry and exceptional clarity, and to Adam Courting, who’s Prospero, although perhaps lacking in power, was a highly engaging and charismatic mischief-maker. The Tempest’s comedy duo – Stephano (Thomas Judd) and Trinculo (Nathaniel Curtis) – worked well together, though Trinculo’s mincing campery made somewhat uncomfortable viewing in 2020 and did seem a jarring directorial choice.
Seeing theatre at the moment is a headier and more complex pleasure than in pre-COVID times. The joy of being there at all is, of course, intensified, and it was and is heartening to see so many people swathed in blankets under a September moon to share the experience of live performance. That experience is bitter-sweet however. The Open Bar team worked social distancing and hand sanitising into their production with their trademark rollicking good humour, but there’s no denying that theatre loses an awful lot without touch. Similarly, although we, of course, all need escape and entertainment in these turbulent times, we ignore theatre’s power to help us understand ourselves, and our human predicament, at our peril.
Reviewed by Rebecca Crankshaw
Photography by Headshot Toby
Fuller’s Shakespeare in the Garden continues at various locations until 1st October. Click on image below for details.