Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Simon Usher
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
At the end of what has been a very difficult year, everyone is looking for a bit of Christmas magic to raise the mood. Understandably then, along with the annual pantos, several notable versions of The Tempest have arrived simultaneously. With the RSC and Donmar Warehouse productions opening in the last fortnight, is there enough charm in this ethereal tale to warrant a third?
The answer is yes and no. The Print Room’s new interpretation, directed by Simon Usher has a number of pertinent things to say about the ways in which decisions made by an older generation have long lasting effects on the young, and, coincidentally, it is the performances of the younger cast members that give this lukewarm production its defining moments.
Having been usurped by his brother, Prospero the former Duke of Milan has lived with his daughter Miranda on an abandoned island for more than a decade. By chance a boat containing his enemies (including his brother and the King of Naples) passes nearby and Prospero uses enchantments to bring them to the shore where he utilises his sprite servant Ariel to exact revenge. Meanwhile, Prospero’s human servant, a savage called Caliban, meets the newcomers and sees a chance to rid himself of his master.
Much is made in the advertising that this show is a ‘fluid and fast-moving two hours’, yet the run time is closer to three, and Usher makes heavy-going of what could be a much slicker production. After the excitement of the opening shipwreck scene, it gets off to a rather laboured start with a long exposition on why Miranda and Prospero ended up on the island and continues sluggishly for much of the first half. Part of the problem is that no clear decisions have been made about tone, so it’s never really clear how the company have interpreted the text. Is this a happy, magical tale of forgiveness or the story of a bitter and vengeful man who brutalises his servants and abuses his powers?
At times this production tries to be both but Kevin McMonagle’s central performance as Prospero is curiously univigorated for a man who finally has a chance to right the wrongs against him. This Prospero lacks menace and seems to focus on helping his daughter find a husband far more than pursuing his enemies, yet he doesn’t revel in the powers either. McMonagle throws away Prospero’s most famous speeches, veering between hysteria and depression but is never the decisive figure he should be.
Similarly, Kristin Winters’ Ariel is equally dour, delivering her lines largely in monotone and appearing more ghostly than spritely, which again steers this version of The Tempest towards the gloomy. An ill-judged Caliban (Billy Seymour) plays the character entirely as a buffoon which conflicts with the sombre tone, and despite obvious welts and scars, fails to consider Caliban’s humanity and Prospero’s role as enslaver to both island creatures.
By contrast, the usually insipid role of the lovers is given genuine warmth and feeling by Charlotte Brimble as Miranda and particularly by Hugh John as Ferdinand whose performance stands considerably above the others. Also playing the treacherous Sebastian who plots against the King of Naples, John speaks the verse beautifully, bringing depth and understanding to conflicting roles which is a high point of the evening.
Lee Newby’s set design combines well with Ben Ormerod’s atmospheric lighting and Paul Bull’s sound design to create all manner of magical moments, storms and eerie effects that beautifully suit the charming surroundings of the Print Room and some of the pictures the technical team create, including Ferdinand and Miranda’s vision of marriage, are charming and memorable.
This version of The Tempest is a rather stormy affair being neither fluid, fast-moving, or two hours. Usher has managed to create a visual look that has a lot of potential while eliciting some excellent performances from the younger members of the cast, but the tone lacks clarity because Prospero’s character hasn’t been fully worked through. If you’re looking for some Christmas magic to end the year then this melancholy Tempest doesn’t really supply it.
Runs until 17 December 2016 | Image: Contributed