One of Shakespeare’s last works, The Tempest is a play that draws towards tragedy but ends with forgiveness. It conjures mighty storms and metatheatrical parades, young love and an island paradise. It has been accused of colonialism and regenerated in a fantasia of postcolonial contexts. You can’t categorise a play like The Tempest as a romance or a comedy or a nearly-tragedy. It belies labels.
A play that would normally run up to about three hours has been cut by Thick as Thieves to a swift 90 minutes with all the parts taken by just four actors. The company deftly handle the complex multi-rolling, aided by quick, on set costume changes. With the cut down script, we retain the set piece speeches and most of the driving plot but we sadly miss many of the play’s light interludes between the lower class characters. That being said, there are some great comic turns from Trinculo (Marcus Houden) and Gonzalo (Ariel Harrison) in “I ❤ Tunis” t-shirts (pertinent, and perhaps purposeful, given recent news.) The textual cuts also mean we lose much of the dramatic tension – the stakes are lowered because we lack the time for exposition and storytelling needed to really develop the characters.
That being said, it’s possibly a more accessible play because of it – although I remain a proponent of the school that says Shakespeare performed well can be understood by the very youngest audience member. Certainly, there is more time for the actors to meet us with their attentive glances and direct address than there would be in a larger space with a more in-tact script.
A score of ethereal harp music and frequent live songs form the sweet noises of the island. Ariel Harrison, aptly named to play Ariel, has a particularly sweet voice and she interacts with Prospero with childish indolence, exuberance and playful respect. Her movements and meddlings were delightful but we lacked the multifaceted dimensions of a character enslaved. The budding relationship between Miranda (Nicky Diss) and Ferdinand (Judd) was similarly one dimensional and predominantly played for laughs. The cliches of lust and young love were epitomised in Diss’ pinch of her lovers’ bicep.
Prospero (Houden) here was unlikeable and harsh – a worthy interpretation which allowed us to sympathise more with Caliban, played by Thomas Judd. The latter was characterised as continually in pain with a suggestion of disability, which I found a little distracting. I rarely criticise a cast for over-projection, but in the small space of The Hope Theatre – a room above a pub in Islington – there were times when the words were lost, especially if a character was impassioned or angry. The loveliest moments were the quiet ones – Prospero explaining to his daughter how they came to be alone on the island, for instance.
The set and costumes I can hardly pass comment on for fear of offending. Let’s say that aesthetic judgement was cast upon the seas when the designer chose fake ivy leaves as set decoration and brightly coloured fairy light head pieces. The movement direction, too, was immature.
Perhaps the criticisms made here belie the fact that overall this is an entertaining production, if not a brilliant one, and the company has handled one of Shakespeare’s most tricky works in all its soaring elegance with worthy effort.
The Tempest is playing at the Hope Theatre until 18 July, for further information visit the website.