FringeReview UK 2021
Directed by Tom Littler, Set and Costume Design by Neil Irish and Anett Black, with William Reynolds Lighting Designer Max Pappenheim Composer and Sound Designer, Julia Cave Movement Director.
Associate Director 2020 Cat Robey, Associate Director 2021 Thyrza Abrahams, Stage Manager Mary Forsyth, ASM Gareth Mcleod, Stage Management Interns Emma Yehle, Rebecca Malamud, Set Construction Thomas Baum.
Till December 22nd
When Tom Littler’s production of The Tempest first opened just before the pandemic, it would have struck many as bearing a familial resemblance to Littler’s recent triumph in All’s Well That Ends Well, on balance the finest and easily the most resolved production of that play I’ve seen.
And familial is literally what Littler intends here too, in a slightly larger cast (eight, not the six of All’s Well) with three doublings, as he draws bonds together in a skein that tightens in a little room – the JST’s conjuring in the West End’s key diminutive space. The Tempest here treads ropes between its poles of intimacy and infinity.
Michael Pennington’s Prospero not only draws such threads as miraculous vocal tracery but conjures what this production’s intimacy is about; and evokes with a rasp of suppressed fury whom or what he’ll dismiss as almost alien to it. To each of the latter he castigates along a scale: of mild tetchiness with Miranda, stern baritone for Ariel flecked with ire; faux-frothing for Ferdinand, and brooding bass-note anger for Antonio.
Joined by Miranda, he flays Caliban with an icy fury, but again it’s not simply a colonial bark. Caliban’s naked back displays livid weals, though you wonder here if Ariel’s delegated for the task. You can’t register all Tempests in one; Littler’s left the colonial as a vivid red map; his orientation’s elsewhere though there’s no doubt it includes Caliban.
Littler visually underscores either new ties (Ferdinand, Miranda) or traces older ones the way for instance Ariel’s placed close to Prospero, or the physical joy of various reunions.
We experience Pennington far more in a coloratura of benediction, reverie, alertness, and a rising note where decision clarifies him – often prompted by Ariel. Outside a diaphanous rust-orange curtain dividing stage right where mariners first appear, Pennington in fact reads their first lines as a story before the mariners are conjured shouting for themselves. This whilst Whitney Kehinde’s Ariel and he handle a model ship in a quiet intimacy. Pennington does sometimes read his part, but is often off the page; it makes no difference at all.
The latter model’s an image the play closes with too, as we move from dream only partially: some of the cast are pyjama or dressing-gown clad, a framing device used differently in All’s Well, also to denote memory.
This isn’t a dream Tempest but one where characters move in and out of the liminal charmed by Prospero. Hence the heterogenous garb from set designers Neil Irish and Anett Black: 19th century livery for Stephano and Trinculo, Ottoman for the courtiers, 17th century for Prospero, dressy rags for Miranda like a literal Girl Friday (long growing out of her three-year-old garb), and 21st century pyjamas for Ferdinand. It underscores that each group is isolated from each other; each – manipulated by Ariel – essays a different island.
Irish’s and Black’s striking set consists of wavy wooden shelves upstage surfing trinkets and books, hoisted or plunging. There’s more books upstage left but it’s a necessarily uncluttered space. For most of Acts II-IV a sheet with a 1610-ish sepia-etched island is drawn across; simple as a show on the road.
William Reynolds’ lighting plays magically when required, as even now it does with the Masque, though mostly it’s an even white. Composer and sound designer Max Pappenheim conjures surf from the start, an envelope of noises and particularly some fine vocal echo effects. He nudges that infinity scale of this production. Julia Cave’s movement direction achieves not just the compactness you’d expect, but dazzlingly quick costume-changes of the three doubling actors, aided by stage managers.
Rachel Pickup replacing Kirsty Bushell gives us an especially alert, warm Miranda, someone whose filial ties are baffled with her role as daughter when the first man she sighs for pops up. Pickup too rises with believable raptness to the brave new world of mainly older men, mournfully undercut by Pennington’s ‘tis new to thee’. There are tiny edits and not quite enough time for the mutual attraction with Ferdinand to breathe, partly because Prospero first hovers next to Miranda. Only in the log-carrying scene (comically Ariel sneaks them back again doubling the workload) from the cellarage, do the couple sing free.
Tam Williams’ Ferdinand is rightly ardent even in his (non-weal) stripes, though certainly awed by Pickup’s Miranda. His Ferdinand tries to make princely-brattish alliterative puns she misses: ‘admired Miranda’ gets comically emphasised, but finds no amused echo. There’s much emphasis on virginity – Littler doesn’t miss Ferdinand’s as well as Prospero’s obsession with this chatelling.
As Caliban Williams masked with a truly lizardy throat and an impressively raspy high voice, juts into a different world he inhabits. His movement’s warily menacing. He’s not the most malign Caliban, but exudes resentment – again the familial point. It’s a strong performance.
In this Williams mostly bounces off two other doubling actors: Peter Bramhill’s northern-voiced lifeboat-suited Trinculo, ‘a comic’ which Bramhill takes like a flailing one-man show on occasion, and rightly gets laughs. Richard Derrington’s drunk Irish butler Stephano cradling his vast cask is another tour-de-farce – of top-hatted raillery.
Derrington’s a quick-scheming Antonio too, with no time here to refuse his brother’s late forgiveness as he has to jump back a role. This Antonio is politic, steely, far quicker than Bramhill’s rather smooth Sebastian, who this production emphasises is slow to apprehend Antonio’s meaning, so perhaps redeemable.
Lynn Farleigh’s Gonzalo is both wide-eyed in utopian dreaming and quick in apprehending danger (the failed assassination is brilliantly compressed and nearly deadly), as well as given the space to throw her benediction wide in the general reunion.
Jim Findley’s Alonso, both noble and disconsolate, with a satisfyingly clear vocal depth, seems ready to repent from the moment we see him, as if he’s been put on to a monstrous deed like Sebastian: a bit slow on uptake.
It’s the compass of Pennington’s and Kehinde’s relationship, as well as with Pickup, where the emotional plummet of this production sounds. Pickup’s vivid – we’ve seen her shift of registers but there’s a shock to come.
Kehinde’s singing and suggestion of a wide tethering around Pennington renders her presence not aethereal but almost a second daughter. Not only does this Ariel point up and sing the masque (as you’d expect here) dropping miniature ritual heads for three goddesses from the flies; Ariel cedes the masque to Miranda.
Then there’s the pivotal moment that’s so beautifully wrought. The moment Prospero’s lessoned in compassion, not revenge. Kehinde’s handling of ‘mine would sir, were I human’ sounds a pivot to prick Pennington’s heartstopping release: ‘then I shall.’ It defines them both.
Indeed the two most original details occur late on. As Pickup takes over from Kehinde and tugs at the cat’s cradle she’s laced Ferdinand with she suddenly winds it round his neck and starts pulling – a stray malign influence Prospero immediately acts upon, ending the masque. Again, this is an internal dynamic, not imposed. It’s dangerous, can’t quite be answered.
The other is Prospero’s farewell, addressed for the most part quietly to Kehinde’s Ariel cradling that model ship, invoking her personal forgiveness. It works achingly, the resentment evaporated, Ariel staying for the benediction (she’s usually vanished by now), so only in the last four lines Prospero addresses us.
Littler’s Tempest doesn’t need to roar or dazzle with spectacle. There’s a few cuts (including Ferdinand apologising to his father for choosing Miranda, thinking him dead). It dazzles in depth. More, it visibly draws the skein of new and old relationships to a head. This above all is Pennington’s task, which he orchestrates like the verbal magician he is. Here, all are ‘acknowledged mine’. Littler’s ensured the production spins round this axis so like the characters we don’t know till the end whose illusion we’re in. Do see this Tempest, not only subtly outstanding, but pulsing with human connectivity and warmth.