The Tempest – Jermyn St Theatre, London

Reviewer: Rachel Kent

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Tom Littler

From The Odyssey to Love Island, bodies of land surrounded by water have caught people’s imaginations. They are simultaneously places of freedom, set apart from the rest of the world, and prisons from which there is no escape. A century before The Tempest, Thomas More invented the island of Utopia. In the play Gonzalo refers admiringly to its idealistic alternative government. Tom Littler’s production also draws inspiration from Gauguin, who chose Pacific Islands as places so far removed from Europe that he could shamelessly portray them as he chose to imagine them, rather than as they were.

Usually, The Tempest begins with violent sound effects. In this version, Michael Pennington, as Prospero, simply reads the story of the shipwreck, including, at first, the sailor’s voices. Throughout the play he is apparently reading the script – in which case he has enviably good eyesight. Sometimes he writes in it. The effect is of an elderly, physically frail but intellectually vigorous man, telling his story, not necessarily as it was, but as he wants it to have been.

Taking a forgivable liberty with the text, the production makes it nearly forty years since the coup which ousted Prospero, the then rather ineffective Duke of Milan. It means that Rachel Pickup’s Miranda is not a teenager but a grown woman, who cares for her father but can also be furious with him. Prospero’s age is not the only feature which makes this production feel like King Lear through a looking glass. This ruler lost control in his prime, and gets it back after years in the wilderness. Children are devoted, and brothers are eventually reconciled. Pennington, having played a ‘harrowing ‘ Lear a few years ago , is here unforgettably mage-like, his voice mesmerising as an incantation.

In the tiny space, every actor is outstanding. As Ariel, Whitney Kehinde commands the stage with youth, energy and mischief. It is impossible to imagine her lasting long in retirement, sucking where the bee sucks and riding on a bat’s back. Julia Cave’s movement direction is especially effective. Kehinde writhes in pain at the memory of imprisonment, then uses her whole body in dance like gestures when casting spells. Sometimes she seems to have wings. She performs the masque single-handedly with the help of three Gauguinesque masks – making it more of an entertainment than usual. It is not clear why she first appears in a full white apron over a dress, looking like a household servant. It may be a nod to Gauguin’s painting of Women on a Beach, but it’s not as if this production makes anything else of the colonialist approach to the text.

The decision to make the storm happen at night enhances the dreamlike quality of the play. It does however mean that Tam Williams has to pull off being princely in Bertie Wooster-ish striped pyjamas, while the other noble-men look as if they got their gorgeous dressing gowns round the corner in Jermyn Street. Williams gets an even worse costume deal as Caliban, a skimpy outfit that would also work for Edgar as Poor Tom. In yet another echo of King Lear, Antonio and Sebastian double as Stefano and Trinculo respectively. ‘Change places, and handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?’

Richard Derrington is deliciously Machiavellian as Antonio, patting down his brocade jacket for his non-existent conscience, and comic as the sozzled Welsh wine-butler. Peter Bramhill who also plays Sebastian, comes into his own as Trinculo, adding a few lines, as is traditional – his catch phrase is ‘joke over’. Jim Findley shows Alonso, a man used to wielding power, as crushed by grief as any other human. Lynn Farleigh is a revelation as a female Gonzalo, less the garrulous old bore, whatever the two brothers may say, than the wise, statesman-like thinker and a loyal, compassionate friend.

Designers Neil Irish and Annett Black place us inside Prospero’s cave, with intriguing curved shelves that look as if they need magic to keep things – old books and curiosities – in place. The Gauguin inspiration is handled lightly, with a few references – the illusory feast is Tahiti and Picnics. William Reynolds’ lighting is richly atmospheric; Ariel is all the more magical for the electric blue shadow she seems to cast.

This is a thoroughly satisfying production. It is an interesting idea for Prospero to make his final speech to Ariel, but this is a show where the audience is especially keen to use their ‘good hands’ in applause.

Runs until 22 December 2021

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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