Joseph Bell’s production of Shakespeare’s ‘final’ play was an odd assembly of awkward staging and comedic brilliance. I left the theatre unsure of how I felt about the production. There were many parts that I had enjoyed, but there were equally as many that left me wanting.
The opening storm sequence, where the King of Naples and his retinue are besieged by the elements whilst out at sea, brought many of the play’s failings to the fore immediately. Michael Shanks, playing the boatswain, managed to capture the pugnacity and bravado of a sailor with a job to do, but this energy was not matched by many others in the cast. Further, the cast clearly had no distinct instructions on how to move on the stage for this pivotal scene. In a storm, a boat will pitch in one direction, then another as it crests each wave. With the deck tilting suddenly, a ships crew will all either shift their centre of gravity and maintain their balance, or they will flail about and likely fall over. The cast in this opening scene marched up and down the stage as if nothing were happening.
Tom Vanson’s Prospero sadly suffered from similar issues in his movements but, more importantly, was hindered by not knowing his lines. Throughout the first act, there were several instances were Vanson was clearly grasping for forgotten lines before, in the latter portion of the second act, he brought a script onto the stage. Vanson has given some brilliant performances throughout his St Andrews career, and it was saddening to see him falter. And yet, his understanding of the script itself was clear and once he was able to dismiss the issue of his lines, Vanson was able to reclaim much of the audience’s favour.
The strongest moments of the performance were led by the comedic power of Baxter Gaston and Ed Fry. Playing Stephano, the King of Naples’ drunken butler, and Trinculo, his court jester respectively, the two took full control of the dialogue, wringing out every drop of humour the script had to offer. Whenever they entered the stage, the audience responded with their laughter. Their manipulation of Tyler Anderson’s Caliban came to be the heart of the production for me, as I eagerly awaited each reappearance of the trio. The audience found particular joy in the growing tension between the two fools as Ariel, played by Olly Lennard, ensorcelled the increasingly drunken Trinculo.
Another aspect of the production that deserves praise is Vanessa Tang’s make-up work, particularly on Caliban. Tang vividly painted whiplashes across Caliban’s back, a clear reminder of Prospero’s propensity for cruelty. What frustrated me most about Bell’s The Tempest is that, beneath the awkward movements and forgotten lines, there was the potential for a strong performance. If anything, this show felt as if it were brought to the stage several weeks too early. The actors could, for the most part, clearly handle Shakespearean dialogue. What felt lacking was that the cast largely delivered their lines in a declamatory manner, making it difficult for the audience to sympathise with them. With more rehearsals and a tighter focus from the director, the show could have gained a significant level of improvement. However, this may be said of any show that falls short of the mark, and, despite its potential, I have been left with a sense of disappointment.
Photo credit: Ludolf Bakhuizen, Ships Running Around