Presented in an almost in-the-round setting within Putney Arts Theatre, Putney Theatre Company’s production of The Tempest is vibrant and exciting and, fulfilling the primary requirement for a summer show, hugely entertaining.
Breaking with tradition, the play opens not in the middle of the sea storm but on a beach which is gradually brought to life by the “people of the island”, spirits whose vividly colourful costumes, stealthy and threatening movements and unusual instruments bring to life the isle that Caliban later describes as “full of noises, sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not”.
This is in strong contrast to the silent, sterile rock of most productions and, by blending magic and music with menace, the scene sets up the play nicely for what is to come. Into this alluring, opening scene enters Prospero who, on discovering that his enemies are at hand, decides to bring them to shore by magical means. The resulting tempest is conveyed through clever lighting, cacophonous sound and well-choreographed movement by the crew and passengers, thrown about and desperately hauling on the rigging as the vessel is tossed and finally broken by the waves. This is all extremely effective. When the storm abates, we return to the beach where Prospero explains to his daughter what has happened and why.
As the “wronged Duke of Milan”, Matthew Flexman is excellent, bringing gravitas and gentle humour to the role, while Sophia Papadopoulos makes Miranda a much more three-dimensional character than is usually the case, conveying all the excitement and fun that one would expect to see - but rarely do - in someone encountering a “brave new world”. This is especially true in the scenes with Ferdinand, played - convincingly - as a man by Merete Wells; the two lovers are touching and, surprisingly, very funny especially after Ferdinand has been put to work by Prospero and later when, to Miranda’s horror, her father warns Ferdinand to eschew sex before marriage. The last of the good islanders, Ariel, is a compelling puppet of driftwood, weed and jetsam, gentle or terrifying as required and expertly animated and voiced by Molly Clery and Emma Fleming.
This is a much funnier Tempest than usual and much of the credit for this must go to the director, Stuart Watson. He finds new meaning in familiar lines and, with his ingeniously appropriate “Day of the Dead” motif, he has evolved the magic realism of Shakespeare’s original text into an exotic and at times exhilarating comedy.
Not everything works - the forgettable character of Francisco might have been better simply forgotten than, as here, turned into a glove puppet; the shoes and jewellery worn by Caliban are jarring and at odds with his otherwise fantastical appearance; there are some minor problems with the language; and having Prospero’s enemies double as additional spirits during the masque for the lovers is confusing as well as unnecessary because the stage is already very crowded. However, other, bigger changes work well. Whether deliberate or through lack of choice, the re-gendering of certain key roles is inspired as is the decision to make the clowns beauticians (that’s right, beauticians …): as Stephanie, Sadia Gordon is absolutely hilarious in her delivery of lines that are sometimes leaden but here are anything but. Similarly, as Prospero’s dangerous and startlingly sexy sister, Catherine Allison mutates the character into something like Lady Macbeth, goading Sebastian (here her feckless husband) to kill the monarch and, clearly unrepentant, bristling ominously at the play’s conclusion – it is clear that the journey back to Naples will be full of danger for Prospero …
In such a colourful and lively production it would be amiss not to mention the large costume team and the puppet designers as well as Perry Kitchen, who is responsible for the music. Their significant contribution to the success of this Tempest should not be underestimated.
26th – 30th June, 7th, 8th, 14th and 15th July