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Brighton Year-Round 2021

Low Down

Directed and Produced by Conor Baum, Co-Produced by Joanna Rosenfeld, Costumes provided by Gladrags Community Costume Resource. Set pieces and lighting provided by IC Theatre Brighton

Puppets Designed by Conor Baum and constructed by the Company. Special thanks to Katey Fraser for construction throughout.

These  (August 28-29th) are the final performances till next year. Watch this space.


No harm’s done, even to a penguin suit in the course of this production. Café Voltaire in ruffs invokes a magical Tempest.

It’s good this season finale’s One Fell Swoop Production of Shakespeare is filmed – both evening and matinee performances. We need a record, and if you’ve missed these productions, they’ll be back. This week sees OFS, the company and its originality go out on a high.

And this week’s director Conor Baum unveils – well he doesn’t actually announce – yes The Tempest. Amongst other qualities, it’s visually stunning. You see physically conjured billows, the production in black-and-white: from white pavilion through the black gown and white ruffs of Prospera, standing aloft to three white-clad-and-hatted white made-up Ariels, and black-girted courtiers also white makeup and black-hatted, to essentially black-suited butler Stephano in his top hat and white-clad clown Trinculo.

The cabaret feel of the music too conjures miracles and a different soundworld to any previous OFS. Simon Gray on keyboards leads the sonance, a mellow zingy not-electric-sounding keyboard evoking sweet noises: a bassline of wonder to the peppy vocals above, existing somewhere in cabaret.

Those vocals float with the Ariels – singer/arranger Natasha Kafka, Lexi Pickett, Katey Fraser all harmonize these. They’re completed by David Samson on keyboards and percussion, Alissandra Henderson, violin in some haunting solos, and Baum himself opposite on kettle drums. Music drives magic forward, even the plot’s sustained by its dark minors.

The balletic intro of sailors in the storm – Fraser’s Boatswain, Kafka’s Master and Ross Gurney-Randall’s Gonzalo one fo the soon-to-be-wracked courtiers dominate vocally as Fraser and Kafka duplicate as ariels with Pickett. It’s a memorable set-piece, portent of the whole ritual style, full of sightlines and pointings, diagonals and swift morphings.

On a promontory, Nimmy March’s Prospera calms her daughter Miranda, Eva Savage. It’s a very different Prospera to several we’ve seen, and different to March’s steely devastated Shylcok three weeks ago, seething with injustice and spitting ‘I am content’. Here, she refuses an obvious stentorian billows-roar and opts for a supernal calm, so though she scolds Miranda you’re never allowed to suppose her abusive or violent, as some tetchy Prosperos suggest. A melifluous Prospera, rich in resignation already, her power resides in simple recitation to Ariel of what she might do to them. Someone possessed of absolute power though dispossessed of ‘absolute Milan’ has no need of roaring. There’s an intimacy of chamber music, of Prospera’s cell here. The final benediction, taken differently here, is implicit in March’s whole performance.

David Samson’s Caliban in astonishing flippers and designed fish-steely helmet like wingless Mercury (courtesy of Katey Fraser’s ingenuity, as elsewhere) is another re-thought triumph. Roaring and cackling Samson sounds vocally like no-one else, but invests Caliban with a seething resentment of course, but also skirling invective. The way he lunges at imaginary or real Mirandas signals how dangerous one side of him is.

But he wonders how far he can rove undetected by Prospero; indeed is more compromised even than he thinks. Inverting obvious colonial and racial stereotypes of many productions – particularly in the noughties – the relation of Caliban and Prospera is fraught with the ingratitude of the indentured. Again Prospera’s sibilant way is that of a prince.

Nick Quirke also in the cast directed a memorable Tempest where at the end a young Baum fledges with feathers, the first visible Ariel. Ariel had been an intricate sound-system. Here she’s made flesh in Kafka with her vocals, Pickett with her ‘you are three men of sin’ invective to the false courtiers, and Fraser’s miracles of harmonizing.

That moment with a massive puppet of Baum’s devising on a platform more than two Ariels high is a highlight. Throughout, each Ariel takes up a strand; it’s difficult otherwise to apportion proper credit to each actor. They’re all superbly in synch and never drop lines between one and the other. Bearing in mind they’ve had hours to rehearse, professionalism can verge on the miraculous as well as inspired.

Ariel is often electronically amplified physically – as in the RSC’s complex ballet of projection from a live actor, or sonically. Here the metaphysic is necessarily grounded. Single Ariels are often defining, but coming in battalions gives them to the air, delivers their magical quiddity.

Ben Baeza’s Ferdinand is another stand-out, a present, ardent and vocally present Ferdinand, full of bravura leapt out of sadness at his king the father’s wrack where’s he hunches down. Confronted with Miranda he leaps surprised by joy, lust and love. He touches Ferdinand’s mix of young courtier, released desire on an island where there’s no court, and utter astonishment when Miranda offers herself on the spot. Playful and gentle, he’s also comic (Miranda finds log-shifting easy, he can barely groan one up). He apt to cues from Prospera when put upon or dropping his sword leadenly.

Confronted with Savage’s fresh clear-voiced Miranda Baeza and she egg each other on to a joyous duetting. Savage on full power ha no courtly inhibitions and her ‘I ma your wife if you will have me’ is stunning in its simplicity; as we’ve seen Baeza rocks on his heels.

One single reservation is that these two could have thriven without white makeup; it’s clear the concept was so swiftly-driven that finessing wasn’t an option. There’ll almost certainly though be a next time for this Tempest. In any case, Savage and Baeza are one of the freshest, most matched Miranda and Ferdinand’s I’ve seen.

As for the three men of sin, Sharon Drain’s Alonso, Ferdinand’s father, is the care-worn man ready to repent. Drain gets the essential wretchedness of a man whom we first see and continue seeing with his key note of ‘it’s out of hope he’s drowned’. This acts as a tonic on villainous Antonio, Joanna Rosenfeld’s plotter and encourager of Sebastian killing brother Alonso. As for Antonio’s brother, Antonio thought Prospera was long dead.          Rosenfeld’s villainy is sometimes portrayed as unredeemed at the end. Here Baum’s direction follows a different logic, or Rosenfeld sees there must be complete redemption and the end with her supplicant before Propsera is moving.

Rosanna Bini’s Sebastian is the quick pupil of Antonio, and here in their double-act – mocking Gonzalo or backbiting on Alonso whom they presently plan to kill, Bini and Rosenfeld enjoy a malignant, but never usually too dangerous duetting. Here though they get very close. The umbrellas and choreography twice thrust at murder. Bini proves the meaner quicker spirit to Rosenfeld’s elegant arch villainy.

Gurney-Randall’s Gonzalo is less the flute-voiced old councillor, more the gravelly sick-hearted soul who’s seen everything and distils it in a wide-eyed Utopia, updating Thomas More’s. Though impractical as ‘all shall be idle’, there’s nobility in the at first slow delivered comfort (after a cracking tempest-shout at the start); by and by this Gonzalo does strike, as his delivery speeds up to a sharp dispatch. Gurney-Randall knows how to subvert expectations. This ensemble works well together: melancholy and swift plotting.

The third jewel of a group proves Nick Quirke’s capricious swerby Stephano and Ben Darlington’s huge arc of Trinculo the clown, where his wailings and over-the-top reactions to Caliban. The Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek of last week, it’s a combo absolutely ripe for repeat comedy.

Caliban soon joins them to make this a stand-out. Darlington has the OTT voice admitting registers from far away from what you think his vocality might be. It’d alarm the sober. Quirke’s mock-tragic wail of complaint and cut-through of truculent command is a thing of perfect timing. Samson’s Caliban roaring back at them is close to a heaven of mayhem. His individual vocal quality then cuts through both of his masters, his furious ‘they are but trash’ fulfilling a triad of discord.

This production like all OFS Unlocked is managed in a matter of hours. If you’re following you know how actors only discover the play and their roles shortly before they act them script in hand. This Tempest though is special, like some others this season; with its particular style and almost ritual emphasis, it’s good news it’s preserved. Twice. But its huge potential will undoubtedly find fulfilment in a full production, like for instance The Merchant of Venice, Rosenfeld’s third week creation.

The decision to diffract Prospera’s speech throughout the ensemble is inspired too, a diffusion from the company as their prayer to be released too, at the end of this marvellous OFS marathon.

Several directors and other creatives praise this venture as something wholly new. Clearly it’ll morph from the post-lockdown spontaneousness of this past 16 months into a core company of flexibility, dedication and imagination. Special conditions have gone. OFS is growing with new ones.

Baum now works at the Globe, other actors like Darlington have with the RSC. With Nick Quirke’s Festival Shakespeare a legacy in this very Scented Garden – with Quirke himself here after some time abroad – it’s clear that with planning, OFS is an institution in waiting.