Over the last eight years Oxford Shakespeare Company has developed a reputation for performing fun, accessible, summer Shakespeare. This year they present The Tempest, once again in the Wadham College garden venue which has become their Oxford home.
At barely ninety minutes plus interval, this is a fast-moving production – perhaps almost a little too fast at times. The Tempest is a multi-stranded tale, and it is tempting to feel that there were some plot elements which would have benefited from a little more space to develop. But the story, if somewhat pared down, is told clearly and with energy and humour.
Michael Hadley delivers a commanding performance as Prospero, ably supported by Sophie Franklin as a lively Miranda, and Matthew Fraser Holland as an impish Ariel. As is usual in small cast Shakespeare, there is a lot of doubling. OSC have got this down to a fine art over the years, handling lightening quick changes and scenes where actors need to play two parts at the same time with flair and creativity, and never leaving us in any doubt about which characters we’re watching. There were one or two somewhat unusual combinations – beast-like Caliban and romantic lead Ferdinand, for example – but even this worked surprisingly well, which is testament to the abilities of actor Richard Pryal and director Mick Gordon alike.
But while the performances are generally strong, the production is perhaps a little lacking in magic. With a plot thick with spirits, visions, and other manifestations of the supernatural, this is a play which provides plenty of opportunity for enchantment, so it is slightly disappointing to find that many of these seem to be among the sections which have been trimmed out. Nick Lloyd Webber’s score contributes atmosphere (not to mention a sprinkling of laughs), but it can’t do all the work on its own – and in fact I ended up feeling there was the odd occasion when the music distracted from the action rather than enhancing it.
That said, in many respects this is exactly what one wants garden Shakespeare to be: an emotionally engaging yet light-hearted retelling of a classic tale – just the thing for a warm summer’s evening.