The Tempest at St Paul’s Church
Carleigh Nicholls reviews Shakespeare’s classic story of magic that is told in the gardens of St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden.
Surveying the island they are now marooned on, the King of Naples and his men note “the air breathes upon us here most sweetly,” and “how lush and lusty the grass looks! how green!” Taking place in the beautiful gardens of St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, Iris Theatre’s production of The Tempest provides a magical backdrop to William Shakespeare’s classic story. With a well-timed wind on press night, the opening ship-wreck scene was especially moving to watch. Powerful music played along with ocean noises, while Prospero (Jamie Newall) stood commandingly above, his red coat billowing behind him as the trees shook. While Director Daniel Winder has produced something with a beautiful atmosphere, the production itself feels muddied and confused, perhaps falling prey to the sin of style over substance.
The atmospheric background is where this production really triumphs, and Designer Mike Leopold has done a fine job designing simple but effective sets that blend into the gardens. After every Act, the audience is asked to move to a different portion of the garden, and for one Act into the church itself, as if to explore the island along with the characters. While this does slow the story down, it is a fun and interactive idea. The story begins and ends at the same place— a stage encircling a tree, with stairs winding up, and ocean sound effects in the background. Indeed, the use of music and sound is impressive. The highlight of the production, however, is the masque scene within Inigo Jones’ beautifully designed St Paul’s Church, with projections on the roof, dim lighting, and colourful effects. Such is the beauty of this scene that it almost made me wish the entire production took place within the church.
Costume designer Anna Sances must also be commended. While the majority of costumes are rather simple and traditional, Ariel’s (Charlotte Christensen) ensemble stands out. Wearing a blue wig, blue face paint, and peacock feathers, Ariel indeed appears otherworldly. Prospero’s long red coat is also effective, subtly giving him an air of authority.
As Ariel, Charlotte Christensen is the standout in this cast and she arguably has the most work to do. Christensen flickers and glimmers around the stage like the ethereal spirit she portrays. She plays the flute and recorder, sings, and dances, and whenever she is on stage, the energy lifts. Jamie Newall also succeed in playing Prospero with great authority, and sometimes cruelty.
The rest of the cast plays multiple roles, and it mostly works. However, there are some confusing scenes. For instance, Joanne Thomson plays both Miranda and Gonzalo, and the opening shipwreck scene in which she suddenly disappears as Miranda and appears as Gonzalo is somewhat abrupt. The other transitions are thankfully smoother. Thomson plays a modern Miranda, rolling her eyes when her father asks Ferdinand (Linford Johnson) to promise to wait for marriage to consummate their relationship. In turn, Johnson plays a likeable Ferdinand, and brings great sweetness to Shakespeare’s rather shallow romance. Reginald Edwards plays both Sebastian and Stephano, while Paul Brendan plays Alonso and Trinculo. Edwards and Brendan bring great energy to the latter comedic roles, and the audience seemed to enjoy them, but their scenes drag on a bit too long.
Prince Plockey plays both Antonio and Caliban, which is an interesting casting choice: Caliban being the literal “monster,” and Antonio the evildoer who wronged his brother. Interestingly, Plockey’s Caliban is not monstrous, and he plays him with much feeling. His scenes with Prospero are uncomfortable to watch, and you believe him when he accuses Prospero of being a cruel tyrant who stole his land.
Seeing that Ferdinand and Miranda are in love at first sight, Prospero notes: “this swift business/ I must uneasy make, lest too light winning/ make the prize light.” Indeed, this production is lucky to have the beautiful backdrop of St Paul’s Church. However, the content needs some more refinement for audiences to truly prize it. Winder has noted that his production has been influenced by seventeenth-century masques. With their focus on spectacle, rather than plot, it is not surprising that this production falls a bit short.
Iris Theatre’s The Tempest will be playing at St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden until July 28, 2018.