The Tempest is perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most well dissected, interpreted and idolised plays yet there is an irresistible allure for any admirer that will guarantee a full house. Last night’s PopUp Globe was no exception. Under the capable direction of Benjamin Henson and led by the superbly talented Lisa Harrow as Prospero, the work promised to open up a world of the occult where storms rage and a remote island is fair game for any to colonise and cannibalise; where true love can be found, spirits freed and forgiveness won.
In this constantly changing environment caught between sky and sea, a clash amongst the ‘airy spirit(s)’ and those from ‘bogs, fens and flats’ a fertile ground is laid for a magician to works his machinations and manipulations before the grand dénouement. It must be said that replete with references to Christian ontologies of renaissance theology and philosophy, a product of the Jacobean and Elizabethan dramatic canon and within a contemporary context of critical colonial commentary (including the current crisis unfolding precisely in that part of the world, when the water becomes safer than the land) any undertaking of The Tempest is ambitious.
While this production doesn’t succeed in unpacking all its multi-faceted layers, the enthusiastic and dedicated cast and creatives do provide for an interesting and entertaining evening that is compromised mainly because of the acoustics and sightlines.
The show opens with a crew assailed by a malicious storm. The boat is heaving and the mariners Alonso (Allen Bartley), Ferdinand (Paul Trimmer), Sebastian (Sheena Irving), Antonio (Cherie Moore), Gonzalo (Mustaq Missouri), Stephano (Patrick Graham) and Trinculo (James Crompton) are bewailing their fate. They are joined by other Mariners and it is rowdy and mostly inaudible as the reverberations bounce across the venue. The few set pieces – bright orange chairs, simple sailors garb and a ‘flotsam-jetsam’ style – are in keeping with the theatrics of the Globe: a thrust stage that projects into a circular ‘pit’ surrounded by three tiers of raked seating.
We then find ourselves with Prospero (Lisa Harrow) and his daughter Miranda (Holly Hudson) observing the calamity from the shores of the island. However, this land is not their own and we discover Prospero and his daughter are in fact Italian refugees, served by the unearthly Ariel (Cole Jenkins/Jessie Lawrence and Ryan Dulieu), a former prisoner of a witch named Sycorax who dwelt upon the island and her progeny, Caliban (Travis Graham), a ‘gentle monster’. We discover that it was in obedience to Prospero that Ariel orchestrated the storm and it is a promise that much more magic meddling will take place as our hero/ine seeks to right the wrongs that have been brewing for the past twelve years.
With a 24-strong cast with a range of experience and skills, Henson has made a commendable effort in pulling together a production that for first-time Tempest audiences will provide a broad brushstroke of the narrative. The pacing is adequate at the best of times and highlights are the use of humour and groundling interaction, especially with the multiple entrances and exits.
Patrick Graham and James Crompton are particularly good at raising audience energy levels with their wrangling of poor Caliban (Travis Graham) and the latter captures much of the character’s trademark ambiguities including fluid loyalties, despair against his master and, to a marginal extent, touching upon the role of the slave narrative within a colonial context. However, the production as a whole does not delve into interrogating these themes or sub-themes and it is a missed opportunity when the current conversation is so centered on these topics.
The not-so-subtle theme of scurvy and its ramifications is a smart extended metaphor that manifests itself through orange incandescence and weaves the many narratives together. The symptoms of this sailor’s disease include night blindness, hallucinations and a hypersensitivity to light, sound and taste all of which are cleverly included in the work as is their ultimate saviour, vitamin C, found most commonly in oranges and lemons. Similarly, the orange pig and monkey masks are interesting visual signifiers however, unless it is a reference to Sycorax (mother of Caliban whose name has etymological roots to pigs and ravens), the link is not very clear.
The musicians, Mitchell Clark, Alexander Alford and Eins Lee, do create an interesting soundscape but their interjections, while well-meaning, often seem perfunctory, occasionally drowning out some of the actors and distracting rather than adding value to the overall coherence of the work.
Harrow is the undisputed star of the production yet even for her in the opening few scenes the acoustics of the venue create havoc. An enigmatic protagonist, she combines a brusque benevolence with the ability to respond to the emotional minutiae of those characters around her. While the first few scenes play out almost too fast (as the audiences settles into a new environment) her performance acquires the appropriate gravity and depth.
This is true for many of the other performers and a highlight is Henson’s arrangement of his Ariels, performed not by one but three actors, who bring a much needed musical lift to the production. All three possess excellent voices, though the familiar current musical references are a slightly odd juxtaposition to their eerie singing quality.
Equally Hudson as Miranda and Trimmer as Ferdinand have a few beautiful poignant moments but the intimacy is lost slightly in the large open air space. The actors in general find it tricky to navigate between large stylised movements for the crowd and capturing the nuances of private exchanges.
This production is very committed to the inherent theatricality of The Tempest but much of it does ride on Harrow’s commanding ability. At two and a half hours (including interval) is a rather heavy meal punctuated with genuine moments of comic relief and if you can forgive the acoustics and occasional sightline issues at least you can guarantee you will be fed some solid theatrical fare.