Review: The Tempest, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Published in The Independent on February 26, 2016

Dominic Dromgoole’s revels now are ended: The Tempest is his last production for the Globe, after a decade as artistic director – poignantly apt, given it’s thought to be Shakespeare’s swansong too.

It’s been a hugely successful tenure: audiences flock to the Globe, love the £5 tickets, and honk at the high-comedy, bawdy house style he’s perfected. There’s been no shortage of ambition either: the Globe to Globe Olympics tie-in saw the complete works staged in London by companies from around the world, while their epic Hamlet tour has taken the Globe round the globe. Dromgoole also oversaw the opening of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, which has proved an atmospheric, candle-lit delight.

It is into this indoor Jacobean theatre that his Tempest now blows. It’s classic Dromgoole: clearly delivered and brightly staged; broadly comic, with every laugh wrung out; relaxed and loose, interacting with audience and ad-libbing, and knowing winks at the more barmy (or boring) bits. And there’s absolutely nothing to frighten the horses: no bold directorial decisions or snarly knots, just a lively story in period dress heading to a happy ending. That’s his strength, and weakness.

Tim McMullan’s Prospero is largely sardonic rather than majestic or manipulative. But he has a real tenderness towards his daughter and his enslaved spirit Ariel; his astonishing voice, somehow both nasal and deeply resonant, chimes a moving note of sadness at leaving their little island, and his magical sway over it. Pippa Nixon, as Aerial, has hauntingly big, hungry eyes, and her absolute desperation to be freed ups the stakes in a production where they don’t always feel high enough. A cooing, over-enunciated vocal delivery, however, does make her sound like she’s reading sentimental rhyming verse on Poetry Please sometimes.

Phoebe Pryce is a rather worried, whiny Miranda, and the love-at-first-sight scenes with Dharmesh Patel as Ferdinand are dullsville. Still, there’s much fun to be had elsewhere. Dromgoole makes the often windy scenes of the washed up court vital and comic, thanks to the sneery, bitchy backchat of Brendan O’Hea’s Antonio and Christopher Logan’s Sebastian.

Also jolly are the drunken fools Stephano (Trevor Fox) and Trinculo (Dominic Rowan), the former a slurring, stuttering lush, the latter gifted the boom-tish line-delivery of an old-fashioned stand-up. It totally works; I particularly chuckled at the scene where they join in singing with the “monster” Caliban (a rather sweet Fisayo Akinade), which is pure Vic and Bob club style.

Elsewhere, the music is just gorgeous, Stephen Warbeck’s “sweet airs” for guitar and harp perfect for the flying Aerial and the island’s magical sounds. The Tempest is Shakespeare’s most musical play, and the many songs are delicate, entrancing, and slightly eerie; there are shades of The Wicker Man even.

Yet the sense of Prospero’s magic never really bewitches nor shivers in this low-key staging. Scenes such as a wedding masque with nymphs and goddesses are more sent up as kitsch than mined for strangeness or ritual. As a solid earthy production, this Tempest is absolutely enjoyable; such stuff as dreams are made on, it is not.

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