Review: The Tempest – ‘exploit the comic potential in Shakespeare’s verse’

RJ Productions present an enjoyable rendition of Shakespeare’s last solo-authored play, whose strongest points lie in its subtler elements.

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Two men sit on the floor in a blue light looking up with a tent behind them
Photographer: Amelia Rogers

“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, / Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.” So announces Caliban in Act Three Scene Two of The Tempest, whose words are particularly apt given the setting of RJ Productions’ rendition of Shakespeare’s 1611 play: the gardens of Worcester College, verdant and sprawling, doubtless help to transport spectators to the lush realm that is Prospero’s island.

Staging a Shakespearean play, particularly one so intricate and multi-layered as The Tempest, is not an easy task: first, there are lines to learn (and lots of them); second, there is the question of Shakespeare’s shifts between prose and blank verse, not to mention scene changes and shifts within characters as the play progresses. RJ Productions rise to the task admirably, with both cast and crew working to deliver an entertaining and solid performance that emphasises The Tempest’s elements of comedy.

To recap briefly the plot: Prospero, formerly Duke of Milan, has been exiled to an island, where he lives with his daughter, Miranda, his slave, Caliban, and his spritely assistant, Ariel. At his master’s command, Ariel orchestrates a storm that brings the Italian noblemen, some of whom conspired to oust Prospero and some of whom remained loyal to him, ashore. By the play’s end, Prospero has reunited Alonso with his son, announced to the group the imminent marriage of his daughter to Ferdinand, and freed Ariel and reluctantly acknowledged Caliban as his own. The last words are given over to Prospero, who some have read as a stand-in for the playwright himself, who asks the audience to “set [him] free”.

As such, the play offers any number of possibilities to those staging it: to what extent will love, revenge, power dynamics, family relations, the play’s more sinister aspects or light-hearted moments be spotlighted? RJ Productions seem to have opted to exploit the comic potential in Shakespeare’s verse, and theirs is an approach that works. Caliban’s movement and speech provoke laughter among spectators, and Gemma Daubeney gives a very good performance as a drunk, though never absent-minded, Trinculo; indeed, as a pair, Daubeney and Gavin Fleming (Caliban) suit each other. Miranda, played by Grace Albery, in awe of the ‘brave new world’ of men she discovers near the play’s end, is also a source of comedy throughout.

And yet, comedy aside, this production also does well in registering the play’s more sinister moments. Take, for example, Act Two Scene One, where, with Alonso and his two advisers having fallen asleep, Antonio plants the seed of murder into Sebastian’s ear. The trio are awoken by Ariel just before the pair put their plan into action, and this scene is very well choreographed, making it quite clear to us who, in Prospero’s eyes, is in the wrong.  

The opening scene of The Tempest is always a difficult one. We are on-board the ship with the crew as they attempt to stop the vessel from crashing or sinking or both, so it is important to convey a certain panic and intensity. But, in this case, such panic is conveyed at the expense of enunciation. Linked to this is the dialogue in the opening scenes of the play, which is slightly rushed: this enunciation, however, does improve better as the play moves on.

The acting is solid, but the stand-out elements of this production prove to be the subtlest: the fact that Ariel sits with the audience, watching on as the crew struggle to keep control of their ship in the storm; Prospero’s broach, speaking to his position as the all-seeing I/eye of the island; and, later, Prospero sitting with the audience as Miranda and Ferdinand get to know each other better. Granted, these gestures do not form the crux of the play, but they go a long way in distinguishing this production from previous interpretations.

Entertaining and engaging, RJ Productions has delivered a well-constructed rendition of Shakespeare’s play, with live music and the setting of Worcester College Gardens complementing the dramatic action.

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