Review: The Tempest

4 star rating
Michael Pennington tackles the role of Prospero for the first time in formidable style in Tom Littler's evocative and inventively novel production of Shakespeare's final play.
The Tempest at Jermyn Street Theatre

Image: Jermyn Street Theatre



Closes here: Monday 16 March 2020

Author:
William Shakespeare

Composer:
Max Pappenheim

Director:
Tom Littler

Cast:

Michael Pennington as Prospero

Peter Bramhill as Sebastian and Trinculo

Kirsty Bushell as Miranda

Richard Derrington as Antonio and Stephano

Lynn Farleigh as Alonso

Whitney Kehinde as Ariel

Tam Williams as Ferdinand and Caliban


Synopsis


“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”


The stranger and his daughter live alone on a remote island.


Some people say he's an artist. Others say he practises magic.


But today is different.


Prospero spots his oldest enemies passing close by in a fragile boat, and he conjures up a storm that will change all of their lives forever.


Background


This production of Shakespeare's final play is loosely inspired by the life of Paul Gauguin on the island of Tahiti.


Michael Pennington, one of the foremost Shakespearean actors of his generation, plays Prospero for the first time and is Honorary Associate Artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company and founded the English Shakespeare Company.


A four-time Olivier Award nominee, his numerous roles include Lear, Hamlet, Richard II, Hal/Henry V, Macbeth, Leontes, Anthony, and Coriolanus.


Tom Littler is Artistic Director of Jermyn Street Theatre, a former Associate Director of the Peter Hall Company and is currently a finalist in the OffWestEnd Awards for his production of All's Well That Ends Well.


ActDrop reviews


Peter Brown

Performance date: Friday 13 March 2020
Review star rating image

The artistic director of Jermyn Street Theatre, Tom Littler, gave a short speech prior to the press performance for his new production of Shakespeare's final play.


Mr Littler thanked the audience for turning out and supporting the theatre given the unsettling circumstances we are all having to come to terms with since the coronavirus burst intrusively into our lives.


He insisted that the theatre was following current government guidelines regarding the coronavirus and emphasised that they would continue to follow developments as they unfold and adhere to medical advice from government experts.


Indeed, it seems that all London's theatres are following the advice currently on offer which has so far avoided banning large gatherings in public places.


However, when I returned home from the theatre I heard that a change of policy may be effected in the coming days instituting a ban on mass gatherings - we'll have to wait and see how that impacts on London's normally vibrant theatre scene.


Press night for The Tempest certainly produced a packed house, though the streets around the venue (including the usually frantic Piccadilly Circus) were subdued to say the least, lending a strangely eery air to one of the busiest parts of theatreland.


But let's get on with other drama...


Reputedly Shakespeare's last play (at least of those he wrote on his own) The Tempest is one The Bard's shorter plays and, I suspect, one that is more readily accessible for some since the language is, in general, easier to follow than some other works.


Most likely written in 1610/ 1611, The Tempest is a magical tale that focuses on a usurped Duke, Prospero, and his daughter Miranda who have been living marooned on a remote island devoid of contact with other human beings.


The backstory is that Prospero wasn't exactly enamoured with his role as Duke of Milan, preferring to spend most of his time wrapped-up in studying magic and leaving his brother to run the Dukedom.


Unsurprisingly perhaps, his brother Antonio decided he might as well take over completely and duly despatched Prospero and his young child, Miranda, in a leaky boat to face whatever fate might have in store for them on the high seas.


They fetched-up on an island inhabited only by Caliban, the deformed son of a witch called Sycorax, and a spirt called Ariel who she had entombed in a tree.


At the start of the play in Shakespeare's text, Prospero and Miranda have been on the island for 12 years, but Tom Littler's version elongates the timescale to (if I heard correctly) 2 score years.


The shift in timescale has the effect of changing Miranda's age, making her older than the teenager we usually find in productions of this play.


That makes for something of a unique take on Miranda's role and her character.


The setting for The Tempest is most often a desert island where much of the action takes place on a sandy or rocky shoreline.


Tom Littler doesn't stray too far from that standard offering with much of the action set against a backcloth that evokes a similar environment.


Here at Jermyn Street space is at a premium which rather constrains Tom Littler's creative hand meaning he can't offer the more airy kind of treatment this play often attracts.


But though the setting here is necessarily compact it doesn't feel at all restricted, even when most of the cast fetch-up on stage at the same time.


The initial scene where we find Prospero conjuring up a massive storm is cleverly, elegantly and inventively handled and unlike anything I've seen before.


Michael Pennington's Prospero stands alone with a model ship in his hands while the real vessel, carrying his enemies and their entourage, battles the raging elements out of sight.


That gets over the need to have a ship-bound location while suitably emphasising just who is orchestrating the storm and thus in charge of the entire proceedings.


Although Prospero is undoubtedly an intelligent and studious man, he's certainly not a duplicitous politician or conniving diplomat and certainly not a warrior.


For most of his life, he's had his head stuck in books on magic and to a large extent avoided the real world, so he could be described as something of a social bumbler and perhaps even a bit of an odd ball.


Michael Pennington touches on that in the regular chuckles that intersperse his lines.


And that device also hints at the underlying mood of his character, for he's a man with a particular mission which is now the focus of all his attention - to secure a safe future for his daughter.


She is blissfully unaware of his plans, so this gives Prospero an underlying mischievousness that Mr Pennington also alludes to.


Moreover, he lends both sensitivity and authority to the role with some beautifully spoken lines especially in his closing speeches.


Tam Williams doubles-up in the roles of Ferdinand and Caliban.


In the latter part he looks like an escapee from a Curse of the Mummy film, but then Caliban is the kind of unusual character who is frequently described in all manner of guises.


The King of Naples' adviser, Gonzalo, gets gender-swapped with Lynn Farleigh sensibly and commendably opting to portray her character as far more astute and shrewd than the obsequious courtier s/he is often painted as.


The decision to make Miranda older than we're used to is an interesting invention that is bound to provoke debate.


But it means that Kirsty Bushell has a more challenging task than might otherwise be occasioned, since she faces an uphill battle to convince us of Miranda's essential naivety, even given her long years of supposed isolation on the island.


For me, it necessitated a difficult adjustment that felt a little awkward and strained in spite of Ms Bushell's good offices.


That problematic issue aside, there are plenty of enjoyable moments to savour in a production that certainly injects ample novelty into Shakespeare's frequently-produced play.



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