Review: THE TEMPEST, Theatre Royal Bath

Director Deborah Warner's inaugural show at Theatre Royal Bath fails to deliver

By: Jul. 08, 2022
Review: THE TEMPEST, Theatre Royal Bath

What can be better than watching The Tempest on the night when Prime Minister Boris Johnson's spell was finally broken? Surely, it's a good time to reflect on the play's exploration of power, illusion, loss, revenge and redemption.

However resonant these themes are today (do any of them ring a bell, Boris?), Artistic Director Deborah Warner (with plays like Julius Caesar and King Lear on her CV) doesn't quite seem to pull them off in her inaugural production in the Ustinov Studio at Theatre Royal Bath.

In Warner's modern, stripped-back version of Shakespeare's mythical tale of wizard Prospero persecuting a shipwrecked crew on an enchanted island, it's hard to determine what she's actually trying to say.

In fact, it's hard to hear what most of the players are saying (literally) due to an acoustically unfriendly, hard set by designer Christof Hetzer (best known for opera designs round the world) that's part builder's yard, part gardening centre and part Turner Prize contender. A couple of patches of dirt and stones (I winced watching barefoot actors trying to navigate them) and a pile of two by fours might work at B&Q, but certainly doesn't do the stage any favours here.

An android-like Ariel (played gymnastically by a very focused and startle-eyed Dickie Beau) is amplified through a distorted microphone to lend him chilling qualities as Prospero's entrapped sprite, but it's difficult to cut through the warped amplification and atonal soundscape to make out his lines.

With the actors by and large ignoring the audience and playing side-to-side to the wings, it's not only tricky to capture much of Shakespeare's brilliant and evocative language, but also nigh on impossible to feel much emotion in this show. I was longing for Prospero (Nicholas Woodeson) to come downstage more and engage with the audience. And when it comes to Miranda (Tanvi Virmani making her professional debut) and Ferdinand's (Pierro Niel-Mee) coup de foudre, Miranda, where is that astonished and wondrous joy of young love?

Costume design (also by Christof Hetzer) has its hits and misses. Decking out the boat's occupants in black tie garb (they're on their way to Italy after a wedding) and lurid orange life-jackets is clever. And yet, some of the everyday, drab dress of others doesn't always work. For instance, Prospero (Nicholas Woodeson) is likely to appear more commanding in something other than a plastic sheet to represent his magic cape and the kind of dark clothing sported by an unkempt college lecturer.

Warner conveys a gritty world, with Trinculo (fans of The Archers can see cheery Stephen Kennedy, who plays Ian Craig in the radio drama) rolling about in the mud, and Caliban reduced to his underpants. These rough and ready antics hit a note of realism within a legerdemain tale, although some audience members might feel some of the dreamlike charm is reduced.

Despite too many figures sometimes struggling with the blocking on a small stage (perhaps this production would be more successful in the larger main house), solid performances can be found, particularly in Edward Hogg's portrayal of Caliban and William Chubb as Gonzalo.

Warner should be applauded for experimenting with brave new world material in the Ustinov Studio, but threads of The Tempest still need to be pulled together into a more cohesive shape - perhaps just like our currently disjointed government.

The Tempest is at Theatre Royal Bath until 6 August

Photo Credit: Hugo Glendenning



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