The Tempest has never been a favourite play of mine. I find the characters and plot a lot harder to warm to than almost any other work by Shakespeare. Would this new production by Asia Osborne change my mind?
The choice of venue is somewhat unorthodox. The Moser Theatre is in the basement of Wadham College, Oxford and serves primarily as a badminton court. It does have a comfortable seating stand that pulls out but it is still a sports arena first and foremost. The production achieves the most successful transformation that I have seen there by draping the entire performance space in vast swathes of plain white fabric. This could be said to echo the famous Peter Brook A Midsummer Night’s Dream but it is does serve as a fitting backdrop for the pure white costumes and the stunning lighting design by Joe Wass.
Perhaps the biggest innovation the production makes is by using 5 actors to portray Ariel. This opens up great scope for inventive physical action, choral speaking and singing. When it works, (as in the scene where Ferdinand is moving the pile of logs – the Ariels are transformed into an ever-changing tree, each time he carries a piece of wood away, they get up and return to be part of the tree again) it works amazingly. When it doesn’t, it is a fails badly. This is particularly noticeable with most of their vocal work which lacks clarity and focus. The Ariels are on stage throughout and all too often are an imposition on the play, a distraction, rather than a mechanism for driving the narrative or for helping to clarify a theme or a character.
Osborne seems to have taken a decision to favour the physical aspects of theatre over the textual. This gives her the freedom to create some stunning visual images and to indulge lots of her ideas. The problem is that we lose the words. True, many have been cut to bring the show to a tidy 100 minute running time. However at least 40% of the remaining language is either inaudible due to poor projection or being spoken too quickly or it lost amidst the choral speaking, the modern soundscape or the other effects used by the production.
The cuts and poor verse-speaking means that the narrative clarity, which is necessary for a full understanding of the text, is completely lost. If you did not know the play, you would be hard pressed to identify the characters or follow any of the developments of the story.
The cast is clearly very committed to the production and their dedication shows throughout. However they would serve their audience better if they projected the words to us rather than to the other cast members. It often felt as if we were intruding rather than being present at a performance.
Has this production changed my mind about The Tempest? No. Whilst it shows a lot of inventive and creative thinking, it is not a version of the play that welcomes in an audience or sheds new light on a classic text. It has the feeling of being self-indulgent and too clever by half. I very much doubt that was the intention but that was the over-riding impression with which I was left at the end of the performance. Some attractive visuals aside, there is very little to recommend this as anything other than an experimental work that does not quite reflect the talents of the acting team.
The production continues until Saturday 13th June. Tickets available on the door or from Tickets Oxford (www.ticketsoxford.com or 01865 305305)