Shakespeare returns to Southwark as 2017 begins, in the form of a condensed, percussion-infused, physical version of The Tempest in The Little at Southwark Playhouse.
Prospero & daughter Miranda have been marooned on an island after being stripped of power in Milan by Antonio (Prospero’s brother) & Alonso, the King of Naples. Ariel, a native spirit, serves Prospero but longs for freedom – another island inhabitant, Caliban, has turned against Prospero despite them initially working together & teaching each other different skills. The eponymous tempest is brewed by Prospero and brings Antonio, Alonso, Sebastian (Alonso’s brother) & Ferdinand (Alonso’s son) to the island, as well as Alonso’s drunken butler & jester. The magic of the storm separates them into factions, each thinking the other’s dead, and splitting the play into separate subplots, which are then brought together by Prospero to conclude the story.
In this production, Prospero is a woman – apart from a little inconsistency in altering the text to reflect this (Ariel still refers to her as “sir”, whereas Miranda calls her “mother”, for example) it works wonderfully. Having a woman deposed adds another dimension to Antonio’s jealous motives, as well as allowing for more diversity within the cast. Trinculo (the jester) also becomes Trincula for the same purpose.
Personally, I find The Tempest one of Shakespeare’s more cumbersome plays. By cutting it down to 90 minutes, it brings the important parts of the story to the fore, without losing the essence of the play. The usually unbearable Caliban/Stephano/Trinculo subplot becomes not only bearable, but entertaining too – and it bears more importance as part of a smaller whole.
The production is framed by percussion; it brings a tribal feel to the proceedings, placing it firmly on the mysterious island. Some incredible effects are created, a highlight being Prospero raising the tempest at the outset of the show. Percussionist Andrew Meredith provides sound throughout, assisted by the rest of the company.
Ele Slade’s set design is imaginative & immersive, with the audience separated into their own little islands of seating blocks, watching events unfold all around them. Its unique setup allows for creative lighting design from Sarah Readman – blue coming up from underneath the seating to act as the sea, fade-ups on different sections as Prospero introduces the characters, and a spotlight on an egg timer placed at one end of the room by Prospero (which, incidentally, fits the running time perfectly).
Three of the five cast members play more than one part; Slade’s costume design assigns a single piece to each character, so the actors can quickly change and the audience knows exactly who’s who.
Benjamin Cawley, Gemma Lawrence & Stanton Plummer-Cambridge take on their multiple characters with consummate ease, ascribing particular mannerisms & accents to each. Cawley & Lawrence are especially hilarious as Stephano & Trincula, whilst also portraying a sweet relationship between Ferdinand & Miranda.
Sarah Malin & Peter Caulfield have a magical partnership as Prospero & Ariel. They are the puppeteers of events on the island and, as such, they will often be found overseeing the action from a raised section of the set. Caulfield’s singing is eerily enticing; he gives a standout performance as a straitjacketed Ariel.
My verdict? A terrific ensemble performance in a lively & well-constructed re-imagining of a Shakespeare classic – it will go down a storm!
The Tempest runs at Southwark Playhouse (The Little) until 28 January 2017. Tickets are available online and from the box office.