The aisle is full of noises

The Tempest, St Giles Cripplegate London, 1 October 2011

Having toured Israel and Palestine, Jericho House brought their site-responsive Tempest to the church by the Barbican Centre. The transept crossing provided a square performance area with seating on three sides, mostly down the nave. The production run time was 1h45m with no interval.

The set was designed for evening performance. Viewing a Saturday matinee meant that its array of lamp fittings, reminiscent of a large store’s lighting department, did not get much chance to shine.

There was a fake stone plinth stage left, various blocks to the rear, and most impressively what looked like a huge bell lying on its side that represented Caliban’s lair. A scaffold tower was built around one of the columns.

The performance began with a dumb show that represented Claribel’s wedding in Tunis, from which the ship passengers were returning when the tempest broke. The storm was heralded by Ariel removing a tray of food from a table upstage. She moved among the seafarers making weaving gestures with her hands, which became her signature motion.

The actors lurched from side to side, convincingly representing the tossing of the ship. But at this matinee performance with the sun streaking through the church windows, there was no darkness to be illuminated by the hand-held lamps they carried.

Miranda looked down the aisle as if viewing the storm (1.2). Prospero responded to her with the air of headmaster fielding difficult questions from a pupil. This was a surprisingly effective characterisation, because Prospero is after all a bookish character who has failed to spot his sibling plotting against him. It seemed perfectly valid that Prospero was often on the verge of snapping his fingers and telling Ariel not to run in the corridor.

His cloak was hung up on a peg, but he still carried his big, white magic stick. His mention of “Antonia” his sister signalled the gender swap for the character of Antonio. She appeared silently at this point so that we could get a handle on the dramatis personae. The King of Naples similarly popped up when mentioned.

Prospero spoke of the help he had received when expelled from Milan, but Gonzalo was not named specifically as his character was cut throughout the production.

Miranda came across as keen and intelligent rather than feral. When her father put her to sleep, she lay down on the plinth. Ariel, with her wild hair, bare feet and lithe movements was much more the child of nature.

The ship’s passengers that Ariel had spread around the island could be seen sat slumped just beyond the performance area.

Ethereal

Ariel’s complaint at having more work to do provoked a headmasterly response from Prospero. His chiding of his ethereal servant verged on demanding she copy out lines: “I must not forget what I have been.”

Prospero and Miranda visited Caliban who sat inside the giant bell. The character was no monster and, apart from a slight slouch, appeared quite human in form. The only hint of his servile status being his bound wounds, presumably the result of hard labour.

However, he was slow of speech to indicate his lack of intelligence and closeness to the animal kingdom. After his scolding, Caliban moved to the back of the performance space and carried boxes in slow motion while the play continued in front of him.

Ariel sang as she led Ferdinand onstage. The young man wore a white suit and tears streamed down his face. Miranda, who was now standing in the scaffold tower, was so impressed with him that she slumped into a crouch.

Ferdinand’s tears were very moving. It seems natural that someone in his condition would be distraught. But Ferdinand’s collapse is not often made this visible, nor are the emotions made so obvious. The text says that he is “stained with grief” and that his eyes are “never since at ebb” implying precisely this degree of sorrow.

When Prospero challenged Ferdinand, the young man drew a dagger, but Ariel froze him. Once disarmed, Ferdinand went to the back of the space to move boxes along with Caliban.

With only Alonso, Sebastian and Antonia present, scene 2.1 was drastically cut, with Gonzalo’s part missing in particular. There was no mocking of Gonzalo by Sebastian and Adrian and many of Gonzalo’s lines were given to Antonia. This worked well when discussing the general characteristics of the island, but sounded odd when perfidious plotting Antonia recounted Gonzalo’s description of his ideal commonwealth. These were clearly the words and sentiments of a virtuous character and not a fratricidal Machiavel. The commonwealth speech also proceeded without cutting interruptions from Antonia.

Alonso was tall and regal in a white coat. He was charmed asleep by Ariel and lay on the plinth. Ariel then sat on the ground to watch Antonia and Sebastian plotting, making her characteristic hand weaving motion. They jointly held a dagger over Alonso’s prone body on the plinth, as if about to make a sacrifice. But Ariel frustrated their attempt on his life by waking Alonso with noise.

Caliban hid under a large dust cover on the plinth (2.2) and was soon joined by Trinculo (doubled with Sebastian). Ariel hovered in the background and lifted up the sheet, prompting Trinculo to climb underneath it and lie on top of Caliban. This was another example of Ariel’s involvement in all stages of the story, giving the character a much more active role than ascribed in the text.

Bottle

Stephanie, another gender-swapped role doubled with Antonia, staggered around drunk clutching a bottle. After she discovered the strange monster and gave it a drink, Trinculo appeared from under the sheet in just his underpants. This was hilarious, but the precise reason why he had undressed was not explained.

Caliban began to worship Stephanie. His adoration and foot kissing indicated a physical attraction, which she seemed to enjoy. They ended up wrapped around each other but without engaging in overtly sexual activity.

Miranda had been watching Ferdinand at work during the previous scene and now met her beloved at the start of act three. They promised to marry each other.

Stephanie, Trinculo and Caliban reappeared drunk (3.2). Stephanie got Caliban to kneel, but found herself unsteady on her feet and decided to stand, as indicated in the text. The foot kissing continued. As Caliban tried to convince Stephanie to kill Prospero, Ariel stood on the plinth behind Trinculo and made it seem as if he were insulting Stephanie.

When Caliban told the others about Miranda, Stephanie’s lines were surprisingly altered to indicate her desire to marry her. The reference to “king and queen” was altered so that Stephanie said of Miranda that “she will be my queen”. At this point it seemed as if the production did not know what to do with the logical consequences of its gender swap.

Trinculo and Stephanie tried to sing their song into a mic with a tabor, but Ariel sang her song over the top of it. Her singing here, as elsewhere, was very beautiful. Caliban hugged Stephanie as they sat on the plinth while he explained that the isle was full of noises.

With Gonzalo’s lines cut, scene 3.3 began with Alonso stating that his son was surely drowned. The King’s sorrowful concession that his son Ferdinand had died was accompanied by Ferdinand kneeling behind him in silent prayer. The implication was that each was in mourning for the other.

Some islanders placed a banquet on the table at the rear. To fill out the scene, Miranda and Ferdinand also stood at the back. With the banquet withdrawn, Ariel burst down the aisle as a harpy. Her costume consisted of a cloth sheep head, jumping stilts providing a springy gait, and poles with sheep feet at the bottom which she used to steady herself. Her voice was amplified to give it more power.

Marriage

Prospero arranged the marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda (4.1). Iris and Ceres only were in attendance. The small company did not stretch to providing a full complement of nymphs and reapers. The magic show was cut short when Prospero remembered Caliban’s plot.

The rich clothing that Ariel displayed to distract Trinculo and Stephanie were priestly vestments, more of which were found inside the plinth whose top hinged open. During this time Alonso silently wandered the stage agonising as he clutched mementos of his lost son, Ferdinand.

Ariel and Prospero chased the conspirators away by barking like dogs.

Prospero readied his revenge, but Ariel mollified him (5.1). The slow-motion entry of the drowsy nobles looked a bit clumsy. This can often look like a childish game rather than a convincing effect.

After Prospero had abjured his rough magic, Ferdinand and Miranda appeared at the rear in full view, but as yet unseen by Alonso, playing a strange chess game in which the pieces were figures inside a model of the church. This was apparently the box model for the production, creating the delicious implication that the chess game was a microcosm of the whole play.

Prospero removed his cloak and donned his formal jacket. The troubled Alonso was shown Miranda and Ferdinand at their game.

Miranda addressed the audience as if we were the inhabitants of the brave new world she had discovered. The Boatswain made a brief appearance followed by the terrible trio. Only Caliban spoke while the others cowered in their vestments gesturing at each other. This avoided dialogue between parts that were being doubled.

After arranging to recount his entire story to Alonso, Prospero set Ariel free. She donned his cloak and Prospero’s head bowed, suggesting that his powers were being transferred to her.

The epilogue provided a pleasant finale to the production.

Conclusions

This was a very good fringe production. It did not produce any earth-shattering innovations, but was excellent value at £21. The cuts and doublings forced by the size of the cast produced some odd results.

The airy interior of the Barbican’s local church made for a pleasing venue. It was a rewarding way to spend the afternoon, even if the production did not bring much new to the table.

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