Review: The Tempest (Tron Theatre)
Updated: Jun 1, 2022
Like being stranded on Prospero’s island, watching a performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest can feel like being wrapped up in a strange world, one where the realities of life outside the theatre are closed off and the audience can give themselves over completely to the magic of the space. But in this all-female production devised and directed by Andy Arnold, that dynamic is turned on its head. The wise, firm, and powerful Prospero, who toys with the lives of his “subjects” and takes possession of the island, is put under post-colonial scrutiny.
Set in a church-like set, with tattered books strewn across the stage, the dark academic aesthetic of the production acts as a temple dedicated to Prospero’s wisdom. But this Prospero, played by Nicole Cooper, is far from the father figure most audiences have seen before. Cooper’s Prospero is a tyrant; the threats and physical torture that Ariel (Itxaso Moreno) and Caliban (Liz Kettle) are put through hang over every this play to have you watching Prospero out of the corner of your eye, knowing that they are ultimately the puppet-master, but it speaks to the terror that Cooper imposes that you find yourself watching her out of fear.
On the other side of the table is Moreno as Ariel. Instead of entertaining the whimsical vision of Ariel as playful and spritely, here Ariel is bitter and exhausted; burdened with carrying out Prospero’s every whim when freedom seems to drift further and further away. The relationship between the two is unambiguously oppressive. Even in the moments when the lines between them seem to blur (for example when Ariel asks if Prospero loves them, or when Prospero asks Ariel’s opinion on their gown), the power dynamics are unapologetically bleak. Moreno particularly brings Kerieva McCormick’s wonderful movement direction into the spotlight. She moves like an artist mannequin; her limbs stiff even as she glides fluidly across the stage, blending the tension of Ariel’s imprisonment with the looseness of their magic.
The moody, overarching tone, exemplified by the ever-present fog, blue-tinged lighting, and the low rumble of the soundscape, stretches into the explicitly comedic scenes of the play. The jokes written into the script are purposefully brushed over, but the unsettling tone is frequently at odds with comedic set pieces. When Stephano (Ariana Ferris McLean) and Trinculo (Taylor Goodwin) encounter Caliban, the comedic tone and slapstick are put to one side, but there is nothing significant put in its place. Indeed all of the scenes featuring this trio are achingly dry. The performances, setting, and script are disparate, as though lacking a concept to bind them together. There is an effort to continue the theme of the cruelty of colonialism into Stephano’s oppression of Caliban, but McLean’s performance lacks the confidence to pull it off.
Indeed, when the attention is taken off Prospero and Ariel in any of the scenes, Arnold’s vision starts to crumble at the edges. It gives the impression of a project where those parts that most satisfy the creator are given top priority, whilst those that do not are left without the direction they need to create a cohesive performance.
It’s a problem that is especially sticky when it comes to the dialogue. The lines are not spoken in a way that seeks to be understood. That is to say that rather than emphasizing pauses and words that would allow newcomers in the audience to piece together the story, the emphasis seems to be placed on what that line is intended to do to progress the story. For audiences who are already familiar with The Tempest, this won’t present a challenge, but atmospheric directing like this, especially with a Shakespeare play, risks leaving new audiences all at sea.
One of the simplest parts of this production to understand ought to be the gender dynamics. Having an all-female cast in an almost all-male play leaves the door open to explore what changes about the characters and how they are performed. Unfortunately, this novelty proves somewhat redundant. The script, already altered by virtue of being cut down, is still gendered. The performances too do little to create an outward expression of femininity, masculinity, or androgyny that would present a new lens with which to view their character. It is a welcome casting choice, as is the colour-blind casting, but on its own it fails to contribute to the meaning of the piece. It neither heightens the masculinity of colonialism nor diminishes it. In the programme Arnold writes that The Tempest is “a play about the exploitation of male power and greed”, but if anything this production proves that power is not such a foreign concept to women, and neither is oppression.
It is a shame that a concept with so much potential should have so many holes in its final production. But even as some scenes leave the experienced audience wanting, and others leave newcomers confused, the design and Cooper’s performance means that this production is still an involving, even intimidating, world to become wrapped up in. Three stars.