Droll and Folly Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s Tempest at Emporium is a must-see. Nicholas Quirke’s tightly staged re-imagining of The Tempest rediscovers the play for a modern audience while remaining completely faithful to the genius of Shakespeare’s last play, and had the audience on their feet at the end.
Emporium’s theatre throws actors and audience together – just as the earliest-known production at Court in 1611 must have done. For the Tempest to work its magic it needs this intimate setting. We have to be totally immersed in it. From the start, when in the front row we imagined we might get wet in the shipwreck to the balls-out finale, our belief in the illusion must be total. Quirke achieves this in spades, enticing superb, unforgettable performances from a top notch cast. More than any director I’ve seen he knows how to play an audience. I realised I was completely in his power when Prospero’s sharp ‘Doest thou attend me?’ in his first scene with Miranda made me realise I’d been watching her try on jewellery rather than listening to his speech. And in a play that speaks of good and bad government, and rational, and of civilised man suddenly all at sea in raw nature, Quirke doesn’t force the references, but gently insinuates them. The plastic bottles bunched and tied around the stage as a ship’s fenders become the modern flotsam washed up on islands wherever man has and hasn’t been. Sebastian and Antonio, archetypal Renaissance machiavels appear like a couple of ambitious junior ministers. We join the dots for ourselves
Doubling roles casts a new light on the play. Rory McDermott gives us a stately, grieving Alonso and a Caliban with a lithe, elemental sexuality that reminded me of Steven Berkoff. With the superb Polly Swinscoe playing Stephano, Caliban’s half-arsed bid for power was presented as part of a drunken seduction, which gave a logic to the comic scenes that is sometimes lacking. And as Gonzala, Swinscoe brought an idealistic fervour to a part which can sometimes feel like a Jacobean incarnation of Corporal Jones. When Swinscoe gives the ‘commonwealth’ speech you hear it for the first time, and realise just how radical her vision of an anarchist commune is, especially for 1611.
Nonetheless in this scene it is the villains who have the best lines. Sebastian and Antonio are played as a pair of would-be killer queens, which gets an especially big laugh in Brighton and adds bite to the barb of lines like ‘She is winding up the watch of her wit, and by and by it will strike.’ Scott Roberts’s Antonio is smooth, efficient, conscienceless, a figure who swims through government in every age, spinning the idea of murder to Conor Baum’s suggestible but equally amoral Sebastian. Roberts also doubles as Trinculo, which reminds you that however knockabout and lovable he is – and his opening scene brought the house down – he is happy given half a chance to be as murderous as his masters.
Morgan’s awesome Prospero dominates the play from the start, and commands the whole range of a character who is both the kindest father and the most terrifying force of nature. His final transition from mage to man brings out the pathos in the part. His superb delivery gives space to the rolling symphonic speeches – ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on’ – and reminds you that Shakespeare’s is also a language of mathematical economy, which modern idiom has forgotten: ‘Were I so minded, I could pluck his Highness frown upon you.’
Miranda is perhaps one of the most difficult roles in the play. You have to believe that this ‘brave new world’ is indeed something she has become aware of for the first time. Sophia Carr-Gomm’s Miranda is an innocent, but thanks to her strange education she is no one’s fool. Nor is she in the least subservient, artfully controlling Baum’s Ferdinand like the practised courtier, without for a moment suggesting that she has done this before. Ferdinand and Miranda are the heart of the play. The audience has to believe in them, and more than that we have to like them. Love them even. Carr-Gomm and Baum bring this off to perfection, stoking the romantic tension between scene by scene. Baum finds the beauty and the sincerity in Ferdinand, still an ingenu despite his wealth of wordly experience, and Carr-Comm brings out the characteristic spirit of Shakespeare’s women in Miranda, a natural wit and above all a quick study. By the end you’re grinning ear to ear with their fathers and Gonzala. You are so happy for them by the end you can understand why the play was performed for a Royal wedding in 1613, when the guests would have joined in the final dance with the actors.
I haven’t said anything yet about the supernatural figures in the play. This is perhaps Quirke’s master stroke. It wouldn’t be fair to spoil it, but he recrafts this element, conjuring it spinechillingly for the modern taste on ghosts and spirits. We find ourselves wholly under the play’s enchantment. And most impressively of all he weaves music – a crucial element of the performance in Shakespeare’s day – throughout the whole production, from the haunting Jacobean harmonies of some truly beautiful original compositions by Conor Baum to a surreal sequence in the final celebratory dance which stands out in my mind like the fractured memory of a 5am after-party, and just as in 1613, melds together the world of the audience and the characters. Zak clapping furiously beside me was the first to stand, and the rest of us soon followed. A superb evening.
The Tempest is on at Emporium 88 London Road, Brighton until Sunday March 27th.
Photos (c) 88 London Road