Susan Elkin | 14 Mar 2020 11:32am
“My old brain is troubled” says Michael Pennington as Prospero – a loaded line which I don’t think I’ve noticed before. And it’s typical of Pennington to make sure I hear it now: one of our finest ‘Shakespearean’ actors, he paces the verse with smooth, elegant clarity, while, at the same time, making it sound as fresh and conversational as if it were written yesterday. It’s like listening to a virtuoso at the very top of his/her game playing a concerto with enormous expertise and feeling. And of course he sets the tone for everyone else in the company.
It’s a key line too. When we first see Prospero he is angry, cunning and vengeful, conjuring the titular tempest by blowing on a toy boat. A man – shoulders hunched, head bent and given to mood swings – in the early stages of dementia? Kirsty Bushell’s loving, caring, concerned Miranda clearly thinks so. Then of course, her father gets a last burst of lucid, manipulative wisdom before commenting presciently that once he gets home to Milan “Every third thought shall be my grave”. This intelligent take on The Tempest, directed by Tom Littler, is among other things study of old age and peaceful resolution of life’s issues – a very different slant from King Lear.
Bushell has an evocatively expressive face – dirty because she lives on an isolated island and knows nothing of ladylike conventions (nice touch). Her tenderness towards her father and the warmth of her attraction to Ferdinand (Tam Williams) are very touching.
Although this production provides some of the funniest Trinculo (Peter Bramhill) and Stephano (Richard Derrington) scenes I’ve ever seen, Littler and his cast also bring out the ugliness of the ‘colonial’ attitude toward Caliban (Tam Williams, doubling as several cast members do). Almost naked in just a tattered loin cloth and a whole head mask made of dirty, mummy-like bandages this Caliban is covered in weals from abuse. He cowers, weeps and is pitifully undignified. 21st Century audience sympathy is definitely with the ‘monster’ as, appalled, we condemn the actions of Trinculo and Stephano even as we laugh at them. Bramhill, in a flat cap, with northern accent and a delightfully insouciant manner including asides not written by Shakespeare, is particularly entertaining.
Whitney Kehinde is a terrific Ariel dancing around the stage, eyes flashing. Her songs are graced with atonal settings (Max Pappenheim) supported by strange, ethereal echoes beneath them – they sound like the sort of thing Radio 3 broadcasts after 11pm but they work effectively in this context. She is also delightful when she lurks ‘unseen’ among other characters and very human when she pleads for her freedom from Prospero.
I liked Pappenheim’s realistic marine sound track and his storms. And it all sits well on the set by Neil Irish and Anett Black which gives us curved shelves on the back wall, a gauzy stage right curtain and a shallow centre stage hatch. It’s yet another example of what can be achieved in a bijou playing space.
This is a succinct (2 hours 20 minutes with interval) The Tempest which, mercifully, cuts very short the often tedious masque scene in Act 4. The cutting helps to make sure that the story telling is powerful and compelling. It would make a fine introduction to Shakespeare for a first-timer of any age as well as being a thoughtful contribution to the interpretation debate for those of us who’ve been seeing/reading/studying the play for years.
Kirsty Bushell (Miranda) and Tam Williams (Ferdinand). Photo: Robert Workman