The theatre world has been too preoccupied with the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible to make a big deal of the fact that Shakespeare's final solo play is also celebrating its fourth century this year (there've been multiple productions of course, with this being my third of the year, but I've already notched up three Dreams
and will end up with the same amount of Errors
by year's end, so I can't count sheer numbers as a tribute.) So it seems only fair that a church returns the favour, hosting a production of The Tempest
by Jericho House that has already toured the Middle East. Across the pond from the Barbican, under whose auspices this is being presented, is St Giles Cripplegate, a church that claims a tenuous Shakespearean connection itself (he may or may not have set foot there at some point) and which, following some 19th-Century renovations, has quite a hodge-podge of an exterior (even before you take into account those office buildings in the background.)
Inside there's a lot of small lamps hung around the performance space and a lot of Middle Eastern design, but apart from an East-meets-West feel, and occasional visual references to weddings, locating it in a church doesn't really add much. The Tempest
may be one of Shakespeare's shortest plays (at least it usually is, eh Sir Trevor
?) but in order to get it down to 105 minutes straight through Jonathan Holmes' production has had to make Coalition-like cuts¹ to the text. They're harsh, but for the most part make sense: Gonzalo is gone entirely, and the Sebastian/Antonio plot is barely there, but that one hardly makes much impact at the best of times so it's not a huge loss.
What's more of a shame about the speedy run is that some characters are underdeveloped, while others have hints of interesting ideas that aren't followed through. So Alan Cox's Prospero initially gives off a real sense of how tenuous his control over the island is, always keeping his magic staff between himself and Ariel, Caliban, even Gabeen Khan's Ferdinand, as if protecting himself should they turn nasty; but the idea gets dropped in the second half of the play. Similarly gender-swappping Antonio and Stephano (both played by Nathalie Armin) suggests some interesting ideas about whether Antonia uses her sexuality to turn Sebastian against his brother, and similarly whether her Essex-girl Stephanie has more than just alcohol on her side to capture the heart of Nabil Stuart's lovably human Caliban. But it's frustratingly left as little more than hints, a particular shame after performing a similar gender reassignment on Jaques was the most memorable part of the Globe's most recent As You Like It
. Holmes' main high concept for the production is to bring back the heavy use of music his research suggests was a major innovation of the original production. The music and sound effects (by Jessica Dannheiser) are definitely good, including most of Ariel's (Ruth Lass) magic spells being hauntingly sung, but although it's used more than in any other Tempest
I've seen (i.e. almost constantly,) I felt as if there wasn't any real revelation here about the importance of the island's soundscape that other productions hadn't also cottoned on to.
This is one of those reviews that will seem more negative than I intend it to be, but I think there's just a lot to nitpick about, the overall picture works well enough and there's some nice performances. The comedy is very much lacking but it's beautifully atmospheric, and I'm sure even more so at night (I saw a matinee, and this being a church the daylight couldn't be blacked out) although there's a lot more slo-mo walking than I can possibly condone. I actually enjoyed a lot of the show but the amount of unrealised potential, and clever ideas bubbling just under the surface and never getting explored, meant I found it quite a frustrating watch.The Tempest
by William Shakespeare is booking until the 22nd of October at St Giles' Church, Cripplegate.