In Shakespeare’s Tempest Caliban snarls that Prospero’s gift of language has merely taught him how to curse. Some of the most inventive sequences in Ian McHugh’s new 80-minute play, his first, are made up of insults and curses, but he has been inspired to emulate Prospero’s rough magic too.
Nick is a reader: his messy squat is full of books and he is as familiar with Virginia Woolf as he is with Coleridge, Keats and Shakespeare. But he is isolated, on edge, yearning for something which he describes as “contriving a shipwreck” and hoping to discover his own Ariel. His friend, a bright middle-class girl, the daughter of a magician, shares his enjoyment of books and is fortuitously named Miranda, while the boy he brings home goes by the name of William - which surely isn’t accidental. He’s a less privileged, more worldly-wise lad, sometimes alarmed at what he’s got into, often in slightly confused control of proceedings. Nick would like to identify him with Ariel.
These three young people circle each other in Christopher Oram’s bleak but cluttered set with a mixture of mutual attachment and bemusement. I can’t pretend to make complete logical sense of the images (often startling) presented by Mr McHugh, but perhaps that is not necessary: it merely puts the onlooker in the same situation as the young people. They try to make sense of their worlds using whatever fragments of information that they happen to light on, whether from literature, pop culture, their (inadequate) parents or the street. Ultimately love provides an unsentimental signpost to survival, for the moment at least. And silence takes precedence over words.
This is director Josie Rourke’s first production as artistic director of the Bush. She has found a compelling new voice in McHugh, someone who relishes language and can turn the work of earlier writers into contemporary metaphor. Rourke’s production does not place the action too insistently in the Great Yarmouth McHugh stipulates, although Britten’s music and the proximity of the sea provide clues.
The young people, as played by Al Weaver, intense as disturbed Nick, sparky but gauche Emily Beecham and Robert Boulter as the abnormally normal William, are of indeterminate ages somewhere between 14 and 17. It may be significant that, for all the sub-Tudor and gleefully X-rated insults Miranda and Nick hurl at each other, the one that really strikes home is “PE teacher!”
Between them director and cast produce plenty of laughs and ratchet up the tension when necessary, more than once causing a genuine frisson of anxiety in the audience. There is evidence, perhaps, of too many hands in the process of “development”, of an uncertainty just how much “magic” we have encountered, but Mr McHugh is definitely a talent to watch - truthful, witty and daring.