Sea-Change Theatre Company, a recently founded women-only company, bring their adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest to the historic Rose Playhouse – it debuted last September at the Skala Eressos Women’s Festival in Greece. Their aim is to counter the pre-Restoration all-male productions, as well as provide new opportunities for women to perform. It follows Southwark Playhouse’s own production in January, the spin-off play The Buried Moon, and the RSC’s technological version that will soon be resident at the Barbican.
The play begins with a shipwreck at the hands of Prospero and Ariel – the former the ousted Duke of Milan, who has freed the magical spirit Ariel from Sycorax, a witch who once ruled the island to which Prospero was banished. Her daughter Miranda with her, they learn to make do with their meagre existence, teaching Sycorax’s child Caliban English while she imparts knowledge of the island. The relationship sours, however, leaving Caliban wishing for revenge. In the mean-time, Ferdinand is discovered by Prospero and Miranda after being separated from the rest of the ship’s crew, and is set to work. Amongst the crew is Prospero’s treacherous brother, as well as Ferdinand’s father and his drunken butler. As all parties converge, is revenge on the cards – or is forgiveness the order of the day?
Inexplicably, this condensed version of (in my opinion) an overly convoluted set of plots is interjected with scenes from Myrtle (Sue Frumin). I can only assume it’s for practical purposes, to allow some of the cast extra time to make costume changes – but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be relevant, or become some sort of framing device. Instead, it’s a series of cringeworthy scenes in which Myrtle offers random items to audience members, and attempts to flirt, tease and joke with them; you’d think someone who describes herself as a stand-up comedian (amongst other things) would thrive at this, but it’s poorly conceived and awkwardly performed.
I applaud attempts to cast more women, of course, though I’m not a massive fan of single gender casting as a general rule. I’d much rather gender-inverted productions (though admittedly The Tempest is an extremely male play, so it would have a similar effect here), or simply following Emma Rice’s approach and splitting male/female casting equally. And if you are going to cast a woman in a traditionally male role (or vice versa), I’d dearly like to see some consistency in the whole approach. If you’re making the character a woman, change all the pronouns and gender-specific words (and potentially the name) – don’t have a ‘she’ who’s also a duke, for example. Not only is it confusing, it shows a lack of attention to detail in adapting a play.
The archaeological site is used to show the shipwreck at the beginning, which is a good use of the space and allows for a sense of scale and distance – though with music playing it is impossible to make out anything the actors are saying over there. There is also ambitious use of projections, however they are all but blocked for those sat in the second row (it can’t be much better at the front), and it’s highly distracting having the person doing the projecting just wandering onto the stage not quite out of sight. At the very least be dressed all in black, or an appropriate costume to blend in a bit more.
The costumes are a slightly odd mix, from Ariel looking a bit like Princess Leia (minus the hairdo) and the nobles on the ship dressed identically so you have no idea who’s who.
Rosie Jones’ performance as Caliban stands out from the rest, as she brings a new interpretation of the character to the table – still rather uncivilised, but less of a monster than you might usually see. It’s a more sympathetic view of a much-maligned character.
My verdict? An attempt to innovate Shakespeare that just doesn’t work, with some strange ideas and inconsistencies – more a damp squib than a tempest.
The Tempest runs at the Rose Playhouse until 2 July 2017. Tickets are available online or from the box office.