I thought the Globe’s Romeo and Juliet with only 7 actors was bold. Until I saw The Tempest performed with just 4!
Last night, I had the pleasure of going to see Thick As Thieves’ version of The Tempest at The Hope Theatre. Situated above the Hope and Anchor pub in Islington, The Hope Theatre is a great space and everyone there was so friendly. Matthew Parker, the Artistic Director of The Hope Theatre, was on site to greet everyone and make them feel welcome. The cast were even serving drinks in the theatre before the show, such was the comradely spirit, and I very grateful for the complimentary refreshments. It was so hot a day that they actually added an unscheduled interval!
And now, be as the obedient spirits and attend, for here comes the review…
In a cosy room which seats about 50, the world of The Tempest was created before our very eyes. I say ‘cosy’, because yes it was a small space. But this actually added a new, intimate dimension to the play, something which larger theatres cannot provide.
This was particularly the case in the opening scene with the tempestuous storm. Lights down, sound effects up, you felt entirely surrounded by the storm, as if you too were on or below deck. It’s one of the best ways I’ve seen the storm done, and the space itself is to thank for much of this.
Being an ‘isle…full of noises,/Sounds and sweet airs’, sound remains at the heart of this production. The songs and ditties of Stephano and Trinculo provide moments of light relief. Ariel’s songs, serve for a more haunting soundtrack to the play. A place where this worked particularly well was Ceres and the other godesses’ blessings scene, a scene which I normally loathe or ignore. But the simplicity with which it was staged was refreshing. There is a tendency to perform this scene with ostentatiousness: having the goddesses clad in beautiful outfits, symbols of luxury. But Thick As Thieves did the opposite: as the lights went down, each goddess appeared with a crown made of fair lights, making them appear more as spirits than corporeal beings. This also brings people’s attention back to the words and song, which was beautifully arranged and harmoniously sing.
As I said at the start, it’s quite a feat, attempting to do The Tempest with only 4 actors. But this actually worked surprisingly well, and with few alterations to the original text. The only occasion the lack of actors was noticeable was at the end, in which Trinculo, Gonzalo and Ferdinand were portrayed by shirts! But in all fairness, this actually added another comedic moment in an already hilarious adaptation!
With actors doubling or even tripling in different roles, inevitably one of their characters will outshine the rest. Ariel Harrison’s Gonzalo is exactly the Gonzalo I’ve been wanting for: a deliberately bolshy, opinionated one! Not a bumbling, old fool as is the norm in recent productions. And Harrison’s Gonzalo is certainly this. Her Ariel is a bit too modern of a take for me: more sassy than subservient. But her movement in this role is commendable: leaping across the stage, scaling the walls, and contorting her body as she torments the King of Naples’ party.
Thomas Judd’s Ferdinand is amazing: it’s rare I’ve seen this character get so many laughs! Half Prince William/half Rik Mayall, it’s an odd combination but one that works. His scenes with Miranda are particularly hilarious, playing on an awkwardness in their relationship. Judd’s Caliban is also good, if a bit lacking in overt monstrosity: his hatred towards Prospero is furious in his cursing, but his movement could be even more contorted. Though to Judd’s credit, it was extremely hot, and having to carry yourself the way he did took effort enough!
Nicky Diss’s Miranda is good, but not a show stealer. But that more comes from the role itself than any comment about Diss’s acting. Instead, Diss takes a good, malicious turn as Antonia, but truly shines as Stephano. Wearing a top saying, ‘I went to Tunis and all I got was the t-shirt’, she commands the stage in this role as does Stephano on the island. The scenes featuring Stephano, Trinculo and Caliban are a particular highlight of this production. One unscripted moment proved very funny, and showed Diss could think on her feet: an audience member’s glass spilled on the floor. Stopping mid speech, Diss went in all seriousness: ‘is there anything in that?’, seemingly breaking character. But then continued: ‘It’s just if there is, give it here, no point in good drink going to waste!’
Finally, Marcus Houden makes a commanding Prospero. This is a character I have always struggled with, as I’ve always classed him as a villain. Because he’s a bit of a dick. And because of this, I’ve always found his turn at the end of the play very unbelievable or a bit of a cop out, saying: ‘the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance’. But Houden is the first actor who’s actually made me believe this change of heart, and his back and forth with Harrison’s Ariel served as a convincing prelude to this. So kudos for actually making what is an unconvincing 180 in the text, actually convincing in performance. Houden and Diss remain constant companions throughout the play: Propero/Miranda, Trinculo/Stephano, and Sebastian/Antonia. And to their credit, each dynamic and relationship feels distinct from the rest.
Overall a great production, which benefits from the simplicity in its approach. With little set pieces, 4 cast members and an intimate theatre, you almost feel like you are on island removed from the rest of the world, stranded with them. Which, with such a great production and cast, is not a bad thing!