It wouldn’t be a British summer without the arrival of some foul weather. And predictably, about half an hour before this year’s Worcester garden play was due to commence, the opening night audience of Worcester Buskins Productions’ version of William Shakespeare’s classic tragicomedy was treated to our very own pre-show tempest! Nothing, however, was going to stand in the way of this production, and the moment the downpour eased off, audience members were ushered out past fairylight-adorned trees to a cluster of marquees, glasses of Pimms in hands. The tempest over, now the stage was set for some real theatrical magic to begin.
The Tempest was one of William Shakespeare’s last plays, and it is certainly one of his most morally complex. It is a story of power, love, oppression, revenge, family and magic, revolving around the dubious ethics of the omnipotent Prospero, meaning that overall tone will always be highly dependent on the director’s interpretation of the subject matter. Issy Paul’s production is dynamic and fresh-faced, and invites the audience to share in the sense of wonder that so many characters experience at different points throughout the play.
One thing I was struck by is the extremely effective use of the garden setting. Clumsy transitions are eliminated through the imaginative use of wooden crates to create a full range of settings and levels, while lighting design is subtle but atmospheric, producing increasing intimacy onstage as the surrounding night darkens. The obvious lack of special effects, however, means that the real stage magic in this Tempest is the music, used as a motif to accompany supernatural events. The music is at its best with the menacing drumbeats that announce the arrival of the harpy and the furies, creating an unsettling other-worldly backdrop. It is at its worst with the tinkly fairy-like bell sounds that herald the arrival of Ariel which, after a few repetitions, frankly begin to sound a bit naff. Costume & make-up combine minimalism with intricate details – bare feet and feather adornments are used to lend a visual sense of tribal ‘otherness’ to all of the islanders.
The cast as a whole were heroic in the utter professionalism with which they performed in the adverse weather conditions. A special mention must go to Gavin Fleming’s Caliban, whose total commitment to the character’s animalistic physicality – along with some stunning fish-like scales and make-up – made it easy for the audience to be transported from a chilly English evening to a remote Mediterranean island. Cecily Brem’s Ariel was a graceful, dance-like sprite, while Grace Albery managed to infuse Miranda with just enough of the stroppy teenage daughter to give the character some depth, her love-at-first-sight romance with Ferdinand ironically naive. Antonio and Sebastian were convincing baddies (watch out, you can tell they’re evil from their black waistcoats), Jamie Lucas was a perpetually astonished and optimistic Gonzalo, and Ella Tournes and Gemma Daubeney were memorable as a comic drunken duo, among an extremely strong ensemble cast.
As Prospero, Shakespeare’s prime duke, Maddy Page owned the stage. It is always exciting to see classic male roles like this re-interpreted in a gender-blind casting, and Page occupied space with huge dignity, asserting authority through Prospero’s staff of power. However, this was not Prospero as island dictator, or power-crazed oppressor, but Prospero as schoolmaster. Caliban, Ariel and Miranda’s failure to listen attentively was punished verbally, but their reactions were of petulance rather than genuine fear of his magical wrath. Prospero was presented as a beneficent parent and observer, taking a seat in the audience in one scene to create a sense of empathy.
Through its emphasis on comic elements, this production of The Tempest arguably sacrifices some of the play’s more hard-hitting themes of genuine oppression and betrayal, but the overall result is overwhelmingly engaging to watch. This joyful, light-hearted interpretation of Shakespeare’s play is perfect for a summer’s evening, or any evening in fact, regardless of the weather. It is such stuff as dreams are made on.