Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Nicky Diss
Music: David Knight
When Shakespeare arrived in Elizabethan London on the crest of a new wave, commercial playhouses were a young start-up. It was still to the taverns and inns where companies of actors would tour plays. Plague was present in Shakespeare’s career, and just as his company of actors were ever resourceful in finding ways to work, so too in our Covid times Open Bar Theatre co-founders, Nikki Diss and Vicky Gaskin, find a way for the show to go on.
This is a strong company of six performers touring a fast-paced, fun and energetic production of The Tempest around Fuller’s pub beer gardens. Instead of moving freely amongst the audience the performers stay within a socially distanced two- tiered stage made from a large scaffolding rig. Four billowing aerial silks hint to the theatrical world. Five individual canopy pods create the safe space for character costume transformations.
Prospero’s Island is alive with poetry, off-the-cuff improvisation, and David Knight’s composed song. The opening tempest is created through acapella before Miranda (Jessica Alade) and Prospero (Adam Courting) are introduced through an unexpected and excellent mash-up of singing and rap. Courting’s Prospero holds the audience captive with his presence and resonating voice, and it is easy to believe his power over the Island. Alade is an elegant Miranda, capturing her innocence and playfully embracing the ‘meet-cute’ when she sets eyes upon the charming and clumsy Ferdinand (Nathaniel Curtis).
Aerial is performed by the agile actor and aerial artist Laura Harling who swings, drops, and wraps around her imprisoned silks. This free spirit also impressively casts the entire audience as a choral backdrop to the lover’s Masque. Towering above us on the scaffolding, she teaches and conducts us through no less than three songs with the witty and confident direction of “It’s simple to learn. I’ll tell you what to do and you’ll do it”! Vicky Gaskin’s Caliban is angry but there is passion in her delivery as she struggles to defy Prospero. Thomas Judd is natural and effortless in his switch between the scheming Sebastian and drink-loving Stefano.
With Nicky Diss’s smooth direction, the performers’ commitment to character and verse carry the evening. One small ripple is in the form of costumes, which are a blurry mixture of Elizabethan and somewhat random Dress-Up. This idea embraces the fun but sometimes overwhelms the actors. Shakespeare’s company often wore their modern clothes, indicating status and this simplicity allows the spoken word to tell the story.
Shakespeare was a poet and businessman. He would no doubt applaud Open Bar Theatre for partnering with Fuller’s Brewery, and especially in the current atmosphere to realise this imaginative and immersive production.
Runs until 29 September at The Duke of Kent, Ealing, and then The Alive Lisle, Ringwood 30 Sept – 1 October.