Julian Eaves reviews William Shakespeare's The Tempest directed by Trevor Nunn at Jermyn Street Theatre, London.
Jermyn Street Theatre,
13th March 2020
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The main draw to this revival of Shakespeare's last, valedictory play is the chance to see veteran classical actor, Michael Pennington (76), delivers a masterclass in verse speaking in the role of the deposed Duke of Milan, Prospero. I noticed many young actors in the audience, leaning forwards intently, bewitched by his apparently effortless ability to find and articulate meaning in the most complex of speeches: and this is no easy task with a script that does everything it can to dismantle any sense of credible reality. Prospero (in Italian it means, ‘I shall thrive'), is marooned on a remote island unknown to Europeans, where he lives in a cave, and yet is endowed with magical powers that can command spirits and even the elements. The fanciful contradictions in this play have long made it one of Shakespeare's most problematic dramas, and any production today still has to negotiate some fairly bumpy inconsistencies in a tale that can come across as an unapologetic and uncritical affirmation of European colonialism, as a chauvinistic manipulation of the single female character (the catch-penny magician's daughter, Miranda), or as just plain daft.
This is a tall order for Artistic Director, Tom Littler. However, he has distinguished himself time and again in his relatively short tenure of this post with productions that make a magnificent virtue of a huge spectrum of drama, all made to look and sound great in the pocket-sized space. This time, he has a suitably ‘wrecked' looking set by Neil Irish and Anett Black, with the cast mostly in jim-jams and dressing-gowns, possibly alluding to the many references to sleep and dreaming in the play's imagery. But instead of getting the island landscape to open up before us – the action roves across it, crucially separating survivors of the opening storm created at Prospero's behest and confronting each individual or group with particular physical and emotional challenges, like many other recent interpretations we seem locked into a single room, and in this case one whose walls are lined with wavy, surrealistic shelves. This provokes a curious tension between what we are being asked to believe and the evidence of our own eyes. For me, sadly, this was not a comfortable or rewarding tension. I think it might be a question of personal taste as to whether you respond to this or not.
The same sense of the bizarre extends into the casting. Miranda is played by the magnificent actor, Kirsty Bushell, whose approach to speaking Shakespeare is radically different from Pennington's, but every bit as compelling. Yet, we are told that she is a mere teenager – something we do not believe for a minute – albeit it one with phenomenal intelligence and wit. As the local spirits, Whitney Kehinde inhabits her own universe as the bonded Ariel, and the athletic presence of the young Tam Williams injects some welcome red blood into the proceedings, displaying the body of the ‘slave' Caliban barely covered by rags and a mask. Williams also doubles as Miranda's love interest, Ferdinand, shedding the visor and climbing into a becoming pair of striped pyjamas, continuing the emphasis on the male over the female: unlike Anne Francis in ‘Forbidden Planet', Bushell doesn't get to show any of her curves, and we are left seriously wondering how and why Ferdi immediately classes her as a ‘goddess' and wants to marry her.
As for the others, they all do creditable jobs: Jim Findley as King Alonso (Ferdi's dad), Lynn Farleigh (a worthily feminised senior courtier, Gonzalo), Peter Bramhill (doubling as the would-be royal usurper Sebastian and a more successful clown, Trinculo) and Richard Derrington (as Prospero's brother and nemesis, Antonio… and also the ‘Admirable Crichton'-like butler, mystifyingly in full late 19th century black uniform and bowler). But, again, for me the huis-clos feel of this pokey room, regardless of the messages it was giving my ‘head', just made me ‘feel' a sense of disconnect and estrangement – two things I have hitherto never associated with a Tom Littler production.
The Tempest runs until 4 April 2020 at Jermyn Street Theatre