Shakespeare, The Tempest, Wannamaker, February 24th 2016


Report of a recent theatre visit by Simon Jenner.

A subversive feeling after watching Shakespeare’s four romances in the space designed to replicate their debuts: Is period authentic? One of the best elements in Dominic Dromgoole’s launch of The Tempest to such intimacy is use of Stephen Warbeck’s music slashed with discords, noises off and the stage machinery itself. It disgorges here a gloriously inauthentic ad-lib from Trevor Fox’s finicky Stephano approaching Prospero’s cell: ‘unexpected goddess in baggage area.’  The hyper-naturalistic opening too is active, rightly semi-comphrensible to newcomers, seamen urgent with occlusive elipses. The complete text too flashes marvels of flickering backstory.

Otherwise performances can seem cabin’d cribb’d confin’d. Not the special effects, indeed, but the scale and depth. Partly it’s the younger actors, where it’s been noted that vocal power can be lacking. This doesn’t apply to some stalwarts, certainly not to Tim McMullan whose singing depth sounds certain fathoms of Prospero in a compelling rendition not precluding flashes of anger and anxieties at his daughter’s attention-span to his wonderfully uncut history – Prospero’s own complicity not shirked.

Phoebe Pryce’s later flashes of lightning are thus well-sired in her spirited, warm reading. Her ardent Brave New World speech suggests that in Naples she’ll learn a thing or two (as James Reeves’ waspish epigram has it) since her Miranda, a wonder of starts, passions and fixations outpaces the Ferdinand here.

What one misses in this production are unique touches, say the recent Globe production’s pause after Ariel’s prompt to pity (‘mine would, were I human’) where Roger Allam intones ‘And mine shall’ pivoting the whole play upon forgiveness, or that production’s wonderfully false-starting lovers. McMullan’s way is to raise a crescendo afterwards.

Pippa Nixon’s Ariel despite some real flights can seem reduced to a PPS hedging round a contract release, but this allows her some job dissatisfaction rendering spirit more tangible, not earthy.

Earthiness comes in two forms. Christopher Logan’s resolute Sebastian, Brendan O’Hea’s urging Antonio, Paul Rider’s afflicted Alonso parry their sea-changed circumstances and opportunities. Courtier-sallies between them and the genuine gravitas Joseph Marcell brings to Gonzalo carry the weight and moment of their courtly life to an evanescence not far from Prospero’s own conjurings. It’s a scene that can mark time: not here uncut. It adds as much as Prospero’s complete exposition to an Italianate world bereft of guidance.

Fisayo Akinade’s Caliban isn’t a match for either Fox or his spark-partner Dominic Rowan. Trinculo here doesn’t seem as subordinate in his finery as he should be: butler versus clown manifests as a more equal jostle than elsewhere. Too many sometime voices seem thrown away in an abridging  of wonderment. But Akinade humanizes Caliban, he’s a monster to colonials only, a perfectly-formed young man with rough aspirations to Miranda – as John Agard’s Calibania wittily proves.

Quotidian court-back-biting grounds something missing from other fine productions. It’s McMullan’s Prospero though who brings this psychically abridged though fully-texted Tempest to its epiphanic close, and one regrets both the island and some of its voices couldn’t match his magical dispensation. They abjure magic long before he does.

 

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