The Tempest Reviews

Jermyn Street Theatre

March 2020

Broadway World, 14th March 2010, Cindy Marcolina

William Shakespeare’s swansong lands on Jermyn Street Theatre’s tiny stage in fetching fashion. Traditionally a grand spectacle, Tom Littler transforms The Tempest into boutique theatre at its finest. Shakespearean veteran Michael Pennington leads as Prospero, and the result is a myth-imbued and aesthetically exquisite show.

Around 12 years before the play begins, the rightful Duke of Milan Prospero and his 3-year-old daughter Miranda were left to die on a rotten boat by his usurper brother Antonio. They found shelter on a small remote island, where he became a sorcerer. Now, he is living with his daughter, now a young woman, the spirit Ariel, and the monster Caliban, his servant. When his old foe passes by on a ship, he decided to stir up a storm and shipwreck him so he can exact his revenge.  

The director sketches faraway shores, foreign cultures, and the specific warm hue that belongs to seaside villages with Neil Irish and Annett Black’s set. Curved shelves that mimic sea waves host an amalgamation of books, knick-knacks, ornamental objects, and pagan iconography. Whiffs of Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian time appear throughout with the design, an artistic choice that grounds the story in its exotic nature.

The defined colour palette is cemented by William Reynolds’ expressive lighting design. Through the subtle changes in tone and sharpness, he adds another visual emotional layer to the full picture as Littler focuses the themes on the personal history of the characters, strengthening the family bonds between them. Miranda’s especially friendly and public displays of affection become in direct opposition to the unfortunate visitors’ rather tepid physical approach.

Pennington is a colossal Prospero. He stands strong in his stance, but a certain weakness pervades all his movements. He introduces a pensive and severe sorcerer, aware of his contradictions while he clutches at every string of power he can. While he refuses to free Caliban and Ariel, he is a humanitarian at heart, just and fair even in his vengeance.

The actor is joined by Kirsty Bushell as an open-hearted Miranda. Her exchanges with Tam Williams’ Ferdinand are cute in their naivety and her attitude to finally meeting other people after a lifetime of isolation is pure and loving. Littler’s double-casting decisions see Williams taking on the role of Caliban - a disfigured, bruised, and quite unsightly creature - as well as the handsome heir to the Neapolitan throne. This installs a compelling paradigm between the two, notably pre-and-post interval.

Littler leaves the first act with the image of Caliban’s hands being untied by Richard Derrington’s Stephano (who also plays Antonio) and opens the second with Ferdinand’s bound wrists. Peter Bramhill flanks Derrington as Sebastian and Trinculo, and the duo become the main, thoroughly delectable, comedic relief throughout the show.

Whitney Kehinde is an exciting and excitable Ariel. Eager to be freed, she complies with Prospero’s requests with palpable enthusiasm, and acting style that could be compared to Bushell’s Miranda and influences the perception of the two characters in relation to Prospero. The directorial touch of choosing Lynn Farleigh as Gonzalo kick-starts a game of conjectures and alters the dynamic on the base of the d=few exchanges with Prospero towards the end.

An enchanting, disarming and preciously detailed piece of theatre, Littler’s The Tempest takes the limitations of the space and turns them in its favour. Subtle storytelling and self-referential layering click together with bare theatrical stagecraft on their exceptionally intimate stage. The director removes whatever there still is between Shakespeare and modern audiences, manifesting an artful and exceptionally  human tale that looks and sounds magical.

British, 15th March 2020, Julian Eaves

The main draw to this revival of Shakespeare’s last, valedictory play is the chance to see veteran classical actor, Michael Pennington (76), deliver a masterclass in verse speaking in the role of the deposed Duke of Milan, Prospero. I noticed many young actors in the audience, leaning forward intently, bewitched by his apparently effortlessly ability to find and articulate meaning in the most complex of speeches: and this is no easy task with a script that does everything it can to dismantle any sense of credible reality. Prospero (in Italian it means ‘I shall thrive’), is marooned on a remote island unknown to Europeans, where he lives in a cave, and yet is endowed with magical powers that can command spirits and even the elements. The fanciful contradictions in this play have long made it one of Shakespeare’s problematic dramas, and any production today still has to negotiate some fairly bumpy inconsistencies in a tale that can come across as an unapologetic and uncritical affirmation of European colonialism, as a chauvinistic manipulation of the single female character (the catch-penny magician’s daughter, Miranda), or as just plain daft.

This is a tall order for Artistic Director, Tom Littler. However, he has distinguished himself time and time again in his relatively short tenure of this post with productions that make a magnificent virtue of a huge spectrum of dram, all made to look and sound great in the pocket-sized space. This time, he has a suitably ‘wrecked’ looking set by Neil Irish and Anett Black, with the cast mostly in jim-jams and dressing gowns, possibly alluding to the many references to sleep and dreaming in the play’s imagery. But instead of getting the island landscapes to open up before us - the action roves across it, crucially separating survivors of the opening storm created at Prospero’s behest and confronting each individual or group with particular physical and emotional challenges, like many other recent interpretations we seem locked into a single room, and in this case one whose walls are lined with wavy, surrealistic shelves. This provokes a curious tension between what we are being asked to believe and the evidence of our own eyes. For me, sadly, this was not a comfortable or rewarding tension. I think it might be a question of personal taste as to whether you respond to this or not.

The same sense of bizarre extends into the casting. Miranda is played by the magnificent actor, Kirsty Bushell, whose approach to speaking Shakespeare is radically different from Pennington’s, but every bit as compelling. Yet, we are told that she is a mere teenager - something we do not believe for a minute - albeit one with phenomenal intelligence and wit. As the local spirits, Whitney Kehinde inhabits her own universe as the bonded Ariel, and the athletic presence of the young Tam Williams injects some welcome red blood into the proceedings, displaying the body of the ‘slave’ Caliban barely covered by rags and a mask. Williams also doubles as Miranda’s love interest, Ferdinand, shedding the visor and climbing into a becoming pair of striped pyjamas, continuing the emphasis on the male over the female: unlike Anne Francis in ‘Forbidden Planet’, Bushell doesn’t get to sow any of her curves, and we are left seriously wondering how and why Ferdinand immediately classes her as a ‘goddess’ and wants to marry her.

As for the others, they all do creditable jobs: Jim Findlay as King Alonso (Ferdi’s dad), Lynn Farleigh (a worthy feminised senior courtier, Gonzalo), peter Bramhill (doubling as the would-be usurper Sebastian and a more successful clown, Trinculo) and Richard Derrington (as Prospero’s brother and nemesis, Antonio… and also the @Admirable Crichton’-like butler, mystifying in full late 19th century black uniform and bowler). But, again, for me this huis-clos feel of this pokey room, regardless of the messages it was giving to my ‘head’, just mad me ‘feel’ a sense of disconnect and estrangement - two things I have hitherto never associated with a Tom Littler production.

The Stage, 17th March 2020, Dave Hollander

Inspired by Paul Gauguin’s time in Tahiti, Tom Littler’s streamlined staging od The Tempest maroons its characters on an island in the South Pacific rather than the Med.

Having played every other great Shakespearean role during his distinguished career, Michael Pennington is finally tackling Prospero. It’s worth the wait. In a sonorous and compelling performance, his delivery remains unwaveringly lucid as the former Duke of Milan who exacts revenge on his treacherous brother - and usurper - Antonio.

The rest of the cast is no less impressive: Whitney Kehinde’s captivating Ariel is ablaze with energy. Kirsty Bushell’s Miranda is forthright in her pursuit of the naïve, pyjama-clad Ferdinand - Tam Williams, who also plays wretched Caliban. The inspired doubling continues with Peter Bramhill as Sebastian/Trinculo and Richard Derrington as Antonio/Stephano, their alternating scenes deftly drawing the play’s intertwined murderous and comic plotlines.

Under William Reynolds’ balmy lighting, billowing curtains evoke the sails of a storm-tossed ship and form a backdrop with a Gauguin sketch in Neil Irish and Anett Black’s set, which furnishes Prospero’s island with eclectic trinkets lining eccentric, whirling wooden shelves. Max Pappenheim’s sound design convincingly brings to life both the titular tempest and the eerie dream-world of the enchanted isle.

Ultimately, Pennington delivers an intriguingly nuanced take on one of Shakespeare’s most enigmatic characters, bolstered by a well-observed ensemble.