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The Tempest at the Open Air Theatre

Published June 10, 2009

Following on from last year’s children’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Open Air theatre, Regent’s Park, gives Shakespeare’s The Tempest a similar treatment, drawing out every iota of magic to capture the imaginations of its young audience.

Director Liam Steel begins his vivid, colourful interpretation of The Tempest with a devised prologue, performed by the cast, which sets up the background to the story in accessible non-verse before launching into the play proper. We hear of Prospero’s banishment from Milan by his brother, his devotion to the magical arts and his years as ruler of the island where he lives with his daughter Miranda.

From the start, the children are encouraged to join in with some inventive audience participation which puts them at the very heart of this stormy tale. As if conjured by Prospero himself, it so happened that sun went in shadow at the Open Air as the storm that begins the story darkened the stage.

The characters that wash up on the island as a result of that storm find themselves on Philip Witcomb’s shipwreck of a set, all rusted iron, skewed timbers and tattered sails. Ropes dangle from the masts, providing the spirit Ariel with the means to perform his graceful rope-work, Matt Costain showing an impressive suppleness and strength as he hovers above the action in his own serene world.

Ariel’s use of his magical powers, as ordered by his master Prospero, drives the plot, in which the shipwrecked Ferdinand, the son of the King of Naples, must prove his love for Miranda. Theirs is an innocent, childish love; he is comically gauche while she, constantly beaming, has a childlike enthusiasm for the new arrival that is apt for someone who has spent 12 years on an island with only her father for company.

In Caliban, Prospero’s usurped slave, Witcomb has conjured a reptilian sea monster, ridden with barnacles, who stalks across the stage, his impressive tail flicking water across nearby audience members. It is a strong image and one which contrasts with the duo he teams up with to plot against Prospero. Sporting comedy hair pieces, Stephano and Trinculo are caricatures and indulge in much slapstick humour as they get drunk, hide in the shipwreck and cavort in the water, unaware of the sprite Ariel looking on. A scene in which Ariel bewitches Trinculo and uses him like a ventriloquist’s dummy is particularly well done.

Composer Olly Fox has infused the story with original music, played and sung by the cast, while Fergus O’Hare’s sound creates a magical, sometimes eerie backdrop and enhances the stormy sound effects provided by the audience.

Though the young audience may not get their heads round every line of Shakespeare’s verse, it matters not, as Steel and company set out to captivate with imagery that is as strong as the text.

CB

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