For most of us, an introduction to Shakespeare doesn’t occur until a high school English class. The Unicorn Theatre’s production of The Tempest, however, tosses any notion of leaving Shakespeare to the adolescents aside and presents an engaging and delightful piece of theater designed for ages ‘9+’. A bit ambitious, perhaps, as several of the parents in the audience appear to spend some of the performance explaining the plot and characters to their children, but the Unicorn’s production succeeds in holding the younger audience members’ attention while also providing thought-provoking choices for the adults.
The Unicorn Theatre, along the south bank of the Thames, is decorated in the spirit of The Tempest, with large seagulls hanging in the foyer and the ushers dressed as sailors—a nice touch to draw the audience into the play-going experience. The audience is a mixture of children in the 8-12 age range along with parents and chaperones. Before the show, members of the cast chat with the audience until the opening tempest draws them to the stage. Adam Carrée’s set, which remains static during the entire production apart from the opening and closing of trap doors, is a ship’s deck, slanted, with a cabin toward the rear that later serves as Prospero’s cell. The text, adapted by Carl Miller, is cut to conform to a roughly two-hour performance time (including interval). It’s a quick pace, but it manages to find a thoughtful balance between meditation and forward motion, though it passes over the initial Ferdinand/Miranda encounter too quickly. Otherwise, the production makes a conscious effort to illustrate with dumb-shows longer passages of exposition, particularly the opening explanation of Prospero’s flight from Milan.
Six actors form the cast, and all but Samantha Adams (Prospero) double parts. What could be confusing shifts are handled with ease—the donning of a black fur-rimmed coat transforms Julie Hewlett from Stephano to Antonio, and the presence of a comb and sparkling jacket distinguishes Ery Nzramaba’s Trinculo from Ferdinand. The costumes as a whole fit within the darkened lighting mood—black skinny ties match with dark jackets, making themselves useful for quick costume changes by rolling up the trouser legs or taking off the jacket to reveal another shirt underneath.
With such a small cast, any weak link would disrupt the flow of performance, but each actor succeeds in holding his or her own, creating a strong ensemble feel (many of the actors have worked with each other in previous Unicorn productions). Amaka Okafor’s Miranda is inquisitive and petulant, pitched at just the stage of dawning adulthood and adolescent rebellion. The verse is beautifully spoken, especially by Adams, who brings a sense of fear-inspired awe and storytelling to the role of Prospero. Performances are deeply physical, compliments of Lawrence Evans’ movement direction. Caliban (Liam Lane) crabwalks through much of his performance, making his transition to the straight-backed Alonso all the more effective. John Cockerill’s Ariel likewise tumbles, jumps, and scampers over the set, and at one point assists in serving sushi during the magical banquet (which sadly plummets into the stage via a trapdoor before it can be eaten). The production also incorporates song and dance, with the cast coaxing younger audience members onto the stage to join in the revelry until Prospero cries ‘No more!’ The physicality is indicative of the general energy that runs through the Unicorn’s production of The Tempest—an energy that draws the audience into the stage business and engages the viewers with excited but not hyper performances. Even outside the context of children's theater, the Unicorn’s Tempest makes for enticing dramatic fare.
The Tempest runs May 15 – June 19, 2010 at the Unicorn Theatre, 147 Tooley Street, Southwark, London, England SE1 2HZ. Information can be found at http://www.unicorntheatre.com/.