Friday, March 1

Tempest – Pleasance Theatre

The production of the Tempest by Wildcard Theatre, currently running at the Pleasance Theatre is rather like the two-headed beast that Caliban and Trinculo create in act 2 scene 2 of Shakespeare’s play, having two heads.  One head is a serious attempt to present Shakespeare’s famous play, the other the desire for a light-hearted music inspired evening.  Instead of working together towards a common purpose the tension between them detracted from what could have been an extremely fine and inventive production.

Pleasance Theatre’s main auditorium was a set out with tables rather than banks of auditorium seats, and the production took place on revolving stage, bare except for a metal construction of steps and stairs which was used inventively by the director, James Meteyard, for the staging of the scenes.  All around the circular stage were the instruments on which the cast, when they were not acting, played a range of instruments extremely professionally.  At the rear was raised gantry used by some of the characters commenting on the scenes being played out on the stage beneath. From time to time cast members would enter and deliver lines from the auditorium and there was much delivery of lines to the audience in the manner of a stand-up comedy club.

The atmosphere evoked a nightclub with drinks served at the audience tables during the performance. The original pop /rock music was composed by Jasmine Morris and the lighting design by Sherry Coenen was exceptional, with extensive use of flashing lights, coloured lights and strobes.  The costumes were a delightful eclectic collection of eccentric designs with many bright colours and some fascinating garments which had been created by sewing together mismatching halves of coats etc. They worked surprisingly well in conjuring the mystical and somewhat surreal context for Shakespeare’s play.

Photo: Lidia Crisafulli

It was in the telling of the story that the problems arose. The text had had to be extensively cut, necessary to make time for the inserted music, and one particularly strange production choice was to cut back the role of Prospero and his spirit Ariel so much that they barely appeared through much of the play.  The problem with doing this is that these two characters are the fulcrum around which the whole play revolves.  Cutting back their roles so significantly meant that much of the play was a series of disconnected vignettes and I wondered whether those in the audience who were not already familiar with the play had any real idea of what was going on.

Kate Littlewood played Prospero as a rather uncertain and tortured man.  Whereas in Shakespeare’s text he is clearly masterminding the events, in this production he was largely reduced to a marginal onlooker.  Aerial, played by Loren O’Dair, scarcely appeared on the stage until towards the end where she performed extremely impressive aerial acrobatics. For most of the production she stood motionless on the back gantry, barely visible, with her voice echoed around the impressive sound system.   Not having her physical presence on stage conjuring the various scenes made it very difficult to understand what was going on without a good knowledge of the text.

Parts of the production were very funny, particularly to the Trinculo and Stephano scenes, which Gigi Zahir and Eleanor House milked for all they were worth, but the frequent use of modern idioms and breaking out of character to address the audience for cheap laughs, while initially funny, soon became irritating and detracting. The standout performance of the night was Alexander Bean in the contrasting roles of Caliban and the King of Naples.  His rendition of a song based upon the “Ban’ Ban’ Ca-caliban” line was, for me, the musical highlight.

I left the theatre full of admiration for the skill and commitment of the eight strong cast of actors/musicians and the professional mastery of the sound and lighting engineers but wondering who the play was actually aimed at.  Those without a detailed knowledge of the play were unlikely to be able to make much sense of the narrative, whilst those more familiar with the Bard’s work likely be disappointed by the failure to communicate the dramatic power of the original play.

Tempest continues at The Pleasance until the 3rd April,

Reviewer: Paul Ackroyd

Reviewed: 16th March 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★