If there are better settings for Shakespeare in London, it would be interesting to know where they are. As Gonzalo says early on in the play, “How lush and lusty the grass looks! how green!” and while there’s the odd disturbance from traffic noise, this is an ideal venue for Shakespeare.
There are long links between Gray’s Inn and Shakespeare. The Comedy Errors was first performed in the hall here, so by using the Inn’s lawns, the Oxford Shakespeare Company is following in a long tradition. It would an interesting exercise to stage Henry VI here though - the line “First, kill all the lawyers” might cause a little frisson.
This is not a radical retelling of The Tempest. Mick Gordon’s production delves little into the questions of colonialism that so intrigue modern day directors. He tells the tale simply, at a rattling pace (the whole performance lasts just 95 minutes); most of the opening scene is jettisoned, as is the feast/harpy scene. In addition, several characters are written out.
Michael Hadley’s Prospero seems rather too genial in the first half - you get little sense of how he managed to subjugate Caliban or exert power over Ferdinand. It’s only in the second half that he captures some of his ducal majesty.
There are some neat touches. By having the same actor, Richard Pryal, play Caliban and Ferdinand, we get a sense of how they are two sides of the same coin, because as Miranda makes plain, she showed tenderness to Caliban at first. It leads to an interesting effect, almost making Caliban/Ferdinand a Jekyll and Hyde figure. Pryal nimbly skips between the two characters –although his Caribbean/Glaswegian accent for Caliban is rather curious.
There’s also very good take on the wedding scene: the Juno/Iris/Ceres pageant, often tedious to modern audiences, is replaced by an opera-like skit on nuptial ceremonies. Nice parodic music from Nick Lloyd Webber too.
Sophie Franklin’s Miranda is full of wide-eyed wonder - although there’s no element of surprise in seeing so “many goodly creatures” when Prospero has already provided her with a vision of them. And there’s a good turn to from Rodney Matthew as Antonio and a rather pompous Stephano. Matthew Fraser Holland’s Ariel strikes a jarring note - with spiky hair and a whining voice redolent of Johnny Rotten, he seems like a refugee from another play.
But, overall, this is a thoroughly entertaining evening. It’s performed with brio and some humour by a hard-working cast: a perfect antidote to the World Cup.
- Maxwell Cooter (reviewed at The Walk at Gray's Inn)