September 3, 2011, by Peter Kirwan

The Tempest (Antic Disposition) @ Middle Temple Hall

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I submitted my PhD on Wednesday after a very intense period of having my head down, during which I’ve not been looking ahead and organising theatre visits or review tickets. It was a delight, therefore, to have the chance to attend Antic Disposition’s current production of The Tempest during a quick research trip to London. The big selling point was, of course, the venue – the beautiful Middle Temple Hall, dominated by stained glass and enormous portraits of Stuart monarchs, set in beautiful surroundings.

While the programme gestured to the fact that at least one of Shakespeare’s plays was staged here, this was no original practices production in the model of Shakespeare’s Globe’s Twelfth Night, performed in Middle Temple some years ago. Antic Disposition is a young but clearly well-financed professional company, and designer John Risebero and lighting designer Howard Hudson did wonders with the space. Caskets littered the floor (arranged in a thrust), some apparently half-submerged under the boards. Subtle switches between lighting states guided the scene’s focus, particularly drawing attention to the effects of magical interventions. The whole was directed with a painterly eye for composition, most powerfully as the “men of sin” raised the lid of a casket and were illuminated by golden light from within, standing for the wonder of the banquet.

Politically and dramatically, this was an entirely conservative production. Richard Franklin’s Prospero was the kindly patriarch, Christopher Rowland’s Ariel his adoring servant, Tony Austin’s Caliban his surly labourer and Ami Sayers’s Miranda his innocent daughter. The production went out of its way to avoid ambiguity – most shockingly, Ariel’s back story and Prospero’s anger at him were omitted, denying Ariel even this one moment of mutiny. This was somewhat refreshing, considering that the play is so often heavily politicised, but I did feel the lack of a strong interpretative angle.

Rowland’s androgynous Ariel was a highlight. With red lips, long red coat and ruffed legs, he scampered about the stage and responded with childlike emotion to everything he saw, moving from simpering delight in Miranda and Ferdinand’s romance to outrage at the plot of the clowns. While he showed petulance at the idea of more labour, his love for Prospero bordered on the slavish, and Prospero freed him by kissing his hand and placing it on Ariel’s cheek. All sighs and smiles, Ariel was strongest in the songs, performed beautifully.

Caliban, by contrast, was gruff and earthy, a relatively sober and simple antagonist. There was something fundamentally sad about him, particularly in his recounting of his dream. His “I cried to dream again” was spoken in an almost sullen tone, as if even more hollow for his moment of enlightenment. In the company of Ben Benson’s Trinculo and David Pibworth’s Stephano, he became anxious and ill, beginning their second scene together by vomiting noisily into a chest. His speech of redemption was, however, passed over surprisingly quickly, the character disappearing quickly from memory. The two clowns were very decent, drawing safe laughs from business involving the swapping of coats while still wearing them and running yelping from the sounds of dogs emerging from caskets.

Miranda and Ferdinand were played as a straight romance, but with Miranda displaying frank sexuality in her appreciation of the young prince, and kissing him passionately when agreeing to be his wife. Robin Rightmyer’s Ferdinand was quietly spoken but utterly sincere. The acoustics of Middle Temple Hall were unkind to shouting or high pitches, and it took a while before I could make out Sayers’s dialogue. This was also an issue in the opening scene, where sailors pulled at ropes and shouted at each other, but this is obviously thematically justifiable there. However, Sayers was strong throughout and her wide-eyed wonder after removing a blindfold to see the assorted nobles was particularly effective.

The simplicity of the storytelling most benefitted the political storyline. Here, the route of Callum Coates’s Antonio, wearing military uniform, to his role was absolutely clear, and his manipulation of the hapless Sebastian (Alexander Jonas) even more so. The moustache-twirling Antonio was still scheming in the final scene, smiling sarcastically at Prospero and deferentially bowing to Alonso before leaving the stage with a stony face. Even better was the clarity of the “men of sin” scene – Ariel ran in with enormous harpy wings and stood atop one of the caskets while Alonso stood in awe, Sebastian wept and Antonio cowered. It reminded me of the problem that too often haunts The Tempest – the play becomes so swamped in spectacle and style that the very slight plot gets lost. This production avoided that problem with great skill.

The production’s good humour was best realised at the start of the second half, in a simple scene involving Ariel replacing the boxes that Ferdinand moved, while the latter blamed members of the audience. The joy on Ariel’s face at this simple trick matched the paternal delight shown by Prospero. While there were moments of unease, this Prospero was always entirely in control, and delivered his opening speech to Miranda and his later soliloquies in a genial tone, offering us the weight of experience in an anecdotal manner. Franklin held the stage comfortably, never challenging with his interpretation but never failing in his ability to keep the play moving.

Finally, I was torn by the music. At moments, James Burrows’s score was the production’s greatest strength. For the masque, Ariel sang from atop a casket, accompanied by the rest of the company harmonising. However, I have a huge dislike of pre-recorded intrusive scores, and despite the relative complexity of the music (beautifully, songs blended seamlessly into underscore) it had the effect of drenching the production in a synthetic wash that was too emotionally manipulative and yoked the mood of the performance too strictly. Less is very much more in this case. However, there was no denying the skill and care of the production, and its entertaining and straight reading suited the space ideally. While I would have liked to see something which grappled more strongly with the complexities of the play, this production was content to pursue – and achieve – a simple beauty.

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