The chance to see a production of one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, directed by the successful British actor Jack Shepherd, is a tempting one. In his written introduction to the play he offers explanation for the more tradition interpretation which he takes, and the reasoning behind both Stephano and Sebastian being played by women (not a deliberate feminisation of the play, but a casting limitation, as the theatre is showing two plays simultaneously, performed by the same eight actors). However, Shepherd’s discussion of the text’s ambiguity does seem to show through in the performance as a whole. Though much of the performance works wonderfully, a slightly ill-fitting feeling pervades throughout. This is a great shame, considering some of the impressive standout performances.
The set is a stark one, with two ladders forming the focus. Despite good lighting effects, the initial storm scene, using the ladders to create the illusion of wrecked ships is sadly not as effective as it might have been. I somehow think that the actors would agree that sometimes a ladder is just a ladder. That said (thank you, Freud), costume choices—taking a fairly traditional slant—work very well, and the later scenes set on the shoreline are much more effectively executed.
Miranda’s entrance (Sarah Straker) provides an engaging contrast to the storm, exhibiting a real sense of emotion. Matthew Sim as Prospero gives an eloquent delivery of his lines, interpreting them clearly and sensibly, although in such a vast role as Prospero, one hopes for a little more gravitas, and more of an imposing presence to establish his position of power over the island and over the whole play.
Ariel (Nicholas Kempsey) appears to be more gremlin than sprite, yet as the play progresses, this seems a legitimate and feasible interpretation, although, perhaps, not preferred. This does work to create a much more obvious pairing in the audience’s eyes between Ariel and Caliban (Neil Sheppeck), as both appear earthy rather than ethereal. This interpretation fails, however, in the realm of music and song. Ariel is supposed to create an “island full of noises.” In this production, the spirits of the island speak rather than sing their songs. Consequently, a measure of the island’s harmonious mystery is sadly missing.
Prospero’s dominance and cruel treatment of Ariel and Caliban is uncomfortable to watch. This is what Shakespeare seems to have intended. Shepherd’s production explores these complex relationships extensively, and shows that it is Prospero’s magical ability, and that alone, that makes him feared.
Caliban is a fantastic character of contrasts. Sheppeck presents him as half animal, half human and gives a wonderful interpretation of his inner struggle. He is a creature of the mystical island, with Prospero and Miranda as both his captors and his educators. Sheppeck makes his audience feel embarrassment at his baseness, humour at his words, and sympathy for his situation.
The relationship we see between Ferdinand and Miranda is a confusing one. As their relationship is not the central focus of the play, it ought not be complex. Unfortunately, it is just that. Ferdinand seems more amazed with Miranda than she with him. Considering he is a young attractive man fresh across the seas from Italy, and she a young woman brought up on a deserted island, with Caliban and her father as her only examples of manhood, one feels their proportion of amazement is a little unbalanced.
Despite his dodgy-looking moustache, Gonzalo (Ben Gaule) gives a fantastic performance of the wonderfully ridiculous and tiresome Italian. Similarly, Lucy Conway’s performance of the drunken Stephania (Stephano in the original play) is masterful, creating a very believable, lightly vile, but none-the-less lovable drunkard. When Caliban also joins in the drunken escapades, he, too, provides a comical and believable performance.
One of the high points of this production is the vision created by Prospero just after he has warned Miranda and Ferdinand about intimacy before marriage. Sim, combined with clever direction, lighting and sound effects, results in what is a truly frightening moment of theatre. How this impacts the play is something else. This scene seems to take something away from the illusion of Prospero as the omnipotent orchestrator on the island. Here, we feel as though the island’s magic has taken control, thus implying that each person in life, no matter how powerful, is always answerable to a greater force.
Despite a slightly damp ending (the epilogue is one of the most important parts of the whole play, and yet, before Prospero has even finished, the cast is moving around behind him), there are still many merits to this production. With some wonderful individual performances, good costumes and effects, I still left just wishing for a bit more magic, a bit more charm, and a bit more of a reason to indulge in a hearty applause.