★★★ | The Tempest

The cover of the programme for Waterloo East Theatre’s new production of The Tempest shows Big Ben toppling under a flood of water. As we entered the theatre, Ariel was suspended in a hammock above the audience. Whilst on stage, various detritus that may have been salvaged from a flood was scattered around, Miranda sitting reading in an empty bath, and Prospero, seated on a crate, quietly talking to her. The press release tells us that the year is 2080, but no other allusion to the year or to London was made, and as the text continued to refer to the courts of Milan and Naples, I doubt many would have got the reference anyway.

The play opened in a burst of energy, with passengers on the ship that is soon to be caught up in the eponymous tempest, dancing and drinking and generally making merry before the storm disperses them on Propero’s island, which is when Prospero starts to have his fun, directing events almost like a puppeteer. Indeed many have sought to find something of Shakespeare himself in the character.

Sarah Redmond’s production was swift moving, managing seamlessly the transitions from high to low comedy, from darkness to light. I’m not quite sure I understood why Miranda and Ferdinand’s marriage should have been celebrated with a lap dance, and I would have welcomed a little more of “the sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not”, but the score did provide us with “a thousand twangling instruments”. In fact, music was used most effectively throughout.

Would that the text had been delivered with a deal more musicality too, for poetry was somewhat lacking, except in the performance of Guy Wolf, who gave us a Ferdinand of charm and innocence, bringing out both the humour and the beauty of the poetry. It was there too in Chipo Kureya’s mercurial Ariel, and I will not easily forget the radiant happiness that spread over her countenance when Prospero finally set her free. Rebecca Hazel caught well Miranda’s wonder at a “brave new world”, if a touch too lasciviously at times. Though there is no doubt a venal side to the attraction between Miranda and Ferdinand, it should still have a childlike innocence about it, which is exactly where Wolf was so convincing.

I’ll admit that I often have a bit of a problem with Shakespeare’s mechanicals and The Tempest is no different from any of his other plays in that respect. Here their scenes were managed as well as they can be, I suppose, ably led by Matthew Harper’s boorishly bullish Caliban, but still nobody was rolling in the aisles, as presumably they would have been in Shakespeare’s time.

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Over all presides the problematic figure of Prospero, and for me the performance of Tom Keller revealed a major problem at the heart of the play. Admittedly, there is not much to like about Prospero for the first half. He is cruel to both Ariel and Caliban, and to Ferdinand, at times dismissive of his daughter. This makes him a difficult character to like, though he redeems himself in the last two acts. Prospero does have a good deal to be angry about, but to succeed in the part, the actor needs to bring out his benevolence as soon as possible. Tom Keller was pretty irascible from the word go, and remained in a pretty bad mood throughout, his delivery of the text unmusical and perfunctory.

The Tempest plays at Waterloo East Theatre until October 26th.