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Review: The Tempest @ The Oxford Playhouse

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub

The Tempest – supposedly Shakespeare’s swansong – is also one of his most enigmatic, most consciously theatrical plays. It twists elements of romance, comedy, and tragedy into a multi-faceted whole, which is at times funny, at times sad, and at times piercingly relevant. Improbable, in this co-production with Northern Stage and Oxford Playhouse, have created a jumbled, eclectic mess of a show, which delights as much as it frustrates.

Tyrone Huggins is a nuanced Prospero. He is alternately an excited pensioner, beseeching Eileen Walsh’s Ariel to do his bidding, and a fearsome, impenetrable despot, using his magical powers with malice and aggression. With staff-aloft, the stooping, kindly father becomes a towering, wild-eyed conjuror with more than a hint of foulness in his strange, harsh voice. It’s a transition that elegantly draws out Shakespeare’s contemplation of the morality of authoritarian rule.

The sounds and sweet airs of Prospero’s island are played live by Brendan Murphy on a collection of musical glasses, tinkling keys, and a twanging drums. One is forcibly reminded of Filter Theatre’s recent Macbeth, which employed similarly other-worldly noises as live accompaniment to Duncan’s Scotland. Yet here, unlike in Filter’s production, Murphy’s music is an understated, evocative complement to the action, not a distracting replacement of it.

It is the set that is the production’s most memorable aspect, however. Heaps of clothes lie strewn about the stage, here and there coalescing into great mounds, from which characters emerge, spirit-like. It is the world’s most disorganised jumble sale. Great lines of multi-coloured shirts are strung up above the performance, and as the play progresses, they are lifted and lowered, dancing and shimmying like washing lines flapping in a breeze.

Prior to the play’s denouement, Prospero delivers his famous meta-theatrical speech, reminding the audience that the actors ‘were all spirits, and are melted into air, into thin air’. Like Puck with his apologia at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Prospero emphasises the fantasy, the ‘baseless fabric’, of the theatre. As characters seamlessly disappear into the rolling terrain of laundry behind him, Becs Andrews’ marvellous set becomes an arresting reflection of this fleeting, temporary quality of theatre. The ‘insubstantial pageant’ fades as quickly as it comes, and this truly is such stuff as dreams are made on.

But Huggins’ Prospero and Andrews’ set are but moments of real clarity in an otherwise unremarkable production. The drunken comedy of Stephano (Tony Bell) and Trinculo (Hannah McPake) is admirably drunk but not particularly comic; Walsh’s Ariel – a faded hippie of a sprite – is perfectly suitable as Prospero’s downtrodden servant, but lacks a certain ethereal quality to suggest her quintessential otherness; and Peter Peverley’s Caliban is appropriately deformed, both in body and mind, but he is just too conventional to really affect – although his instant adoration of foreigners Stephano and Trinculo is the start of a healthy debate on colonialist attitudes.

Director Phelim McDermot’s production has one of the most startlingly original platforms to work upon – a remarkable set, a delightful musical accompaniment – and it is graced with a strong central performance from Huggins, but it only reaches its full potential on occasion. There really is a lot to work with here; one only wishes Improbable would continue to construct more on such a strong foundation.

3/5

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