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.
“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.