July 29, 2014, by Peter Kirwan
The Tempest (Gloucestershire Youth Players) @ The Tobacco Factory, Bristol
Gloucestershire Youth Players has been touring productions of Shakespeare for nine years, and its 2014 production of The Tempest marks the first time the ensemble has used a professional theatre, concluding its tour (which also took in the Dell in Stratford-upon-Avon) with two performances in Bristol’s Tobacco Factory. It’s a pleasure to see a youth theatre company getting such a high-profile platform, and deservedly so. The risk taking allowed by freedom from commercial constraints was in evidence here with one of the most experimental and bold productions of The Tempest, amateur or professional, that I’ve seen in quite some time.
Edward Derbyshire’s concept placed enormous demands on the young cast by running the play twice through for every performance, with most players switching roles between the two ‘parts’. The two parts were billed as ‘a traditional feast’ and ‘a revolutionary island’, though the distinction might be more clearly made between ‘sincere’ and ‘cynical’. This had two key effects on the production. With two interpretations demanded of almost every line (certain cutting decisions were specific to each half), performance choices were required to be more extreme, in order both to differentiate the two halves from each other and to sustain the tone. It also meant that, very unusually, delivery was prioritised over text, the words becoming a vehicle for the characters’ primary tonal mode. While this meant straining the sense of some of the lines, the point here was to foreground the plurality of possible interpretations, self-consciously appropriating the text to diametrically opposed readings.
Wonderfully, this meant that there were numerous ways to read the production. The temptation is to compare, and comparisons were encouraged through the doubling choices: Adrian and Francisco switched roles between the two halves, as did Trinculo and Stephano, Alonso and Antonio, and Ceres and Juno. Gonzalo, Sebastian and the Boatswain were played by the same actors in both halves but offered completely different readings of their characters; and the rest of the key cast (Prospero, Miranda, Ferdinand, Caliban, Ariel) appeared in their main roles in one half and ghosted the stage in the other, watching their counterparts perform the role in their own way. Through these choices the entire production was integrated fully, demanding that the audience read not only the performance currently happening but also the previous or subsequent one through the presence of those actors.
The contrasts were fascinating. In the sincere half, Ines Oliver’ s Antonio worked intensively on Lois Cole’s Sebastian, who was more than ready to participate in the murder of his brother, and the two maintained their bitter scorn of their fellows til the end. In the reversed version, with George Rayson taking over Antonio, the two became comic relief, naive and ridiculous in their comic murder attempts and both terrified when Gonzalo, Alonso or Prospero turned on them. Conversely, the hysterical performances of Beth Kerridge and Amy Young in the first half as Stephano and Trinculo made for a wonderfully energetic and amusing subplot, as a Scottish Stephano belched and rolled about the stage, the two danced and adlibbed, and George Penny’s Caliban became paralytically drunk. In the second half, Kerride and Young reversed roles. Young became a coldly smiling villain, terrifying the nervous Trinculo who obeyed wholeheartedly when told to fall into line. Here, Murray Spear’s take on Caliban was more confident and upright, facing off against Stephano with the constant threat of treachery.
The second, more cynical, half was the one that strained the text more, yet the commitment of the actors to their subtext worked to render the text a shared lie when necessary. The extraordinary masque scene of the cynical half was the key example here. The entire ensemble gathered in a circle and chanted, snarled and snapped at the lovers within while the goddesses shouted their lines. Earlier in the play Josh Hudson’s aggressive Ferdinand had made very clear to the diffident Miranda of Georgie Murphy that he would and could, as a prince, take what he wanted. Once trapped in the wedding circle, though, Miranda was all teeth and claws, snarling at and pursuing the terrified Ferdinand, who tried desperately to escape his ritual marriage while continuing to shout his ‘pleasure’ to the sorcerer father who stood centrally, impassive. As the masque concluded, Miranda pursued Ferdinand into the audience, tackling him rather forcefully under the bleachers. As a contrast to the slow circular dance of the first half’s masque, with its comically chaste teen romance between Phoebe Todd’s Ferdinand and Rosie Towle’s Miranda, the potentially conflicting energies of the play manifested nicely.
Both halves of the production were set around a patterned quilt that formed the only constant set, with holes for characters to emerge through. This served as everything from storm-tossed sea to gaberdine, magical robes to cave, and was reversed for the second half (at which time most of the ensemble also changed from all-black outfits to all-white). The constant reminders of the double nature of the production were iterated through the deployment in both halves of two Ariels working in concert with one another. The distinctions here were interesting: Guy Seabrook and Carys Harmer in the ‘traditional half’ were floaty but not angelic, enjoying their tormenting of the nobles, but utterly besotted with Prospero, both kneeling to him to plead for his love. Jenny Baker and Ruth Harris were hissing animals in the darker half, embittered against Prospero and leaving him without acknowledgement upon their freedom. Baker and Harris brought down the house with their ‘harpy’ scene – where the earlier pair had worn animal masks and terrified the men of sin, in the darker half the Ariels subjected the men to sexual humiliation, emerging in revealing clothing and gyrating before the men (and milking lines such as ‘Your swords are not too massy for your strengths / And will not be uplifted’ for every conceivable bit of innuendo).
Anchoring both halves, surprisingly, was Gonzalo, played in both by Lucy Wordsworth. The shared casting here allowed a fixed point of reference for shifting interpretation – thus, while Charles Powell’s kindly Prospero told the story of his shipwreck and received provisions gratefully from a simpering Gonzalo, Jack Meldrum’s Prospero had to fight and struggle to get the same from a Gonzalo who was much more resistant to the Duke. In the first half the reunion was warm and loving, in the second cold and sulky. Wordsworth managed the two different versions of her character expertly, and much of the comedy in both halves came from her nuanced takes on the same actions. She doddered in the first half, waffling heedlessly while the more dominant Antonio and Sebastian mocked her; in the second half she was young and vibrant, bullying the two lords and holding her walking stick as a rifle ready to execute any trespassers. The simple shared act in each half of Gonzalo knocking off Sebastian’s cap – in one petulant and funny, in the other genuinely threatening – was a lovely grace note.
The enjoyment came from seeing how the two fixed tones of performance served to mould the text into new ways, but this did inevitably come at the expense of any sustained reading. In some senses this worked best as a thought experiment, drawing attention to the grand ‘if’ – ‘this is how the play could look IF we took this angle’. In committing to a sincere or cynical mode, the production was required to sacrifice local nuance within these readings: the sincere Prospero, for example, had little room to explore the darker sides of his character as part of his overall kindly persona. The Jekyll and Hyde approach is exposing and revealing in many important ways, pointing to oppositions and contradictions that allow two sides of a character full exploration, and in this sense the GYP production did important, innovative work by refusing to neuter the darker aspects of its characters or forsake entirely the comic romance. Yet the point of the Jekyll and Hyde narrative is that both extremes tend towards self-destruction, and this production presented the two sides without speculating as to resolution.
What we were left with was the two Prosperos delivering the epilogue together, sharing the final line as they asked for the audience’s indulgence to set them free. Interestingly, the epilogue was only delivered after the second half, giving the impression that it applied far more to the personal hell of Meldrum’s Prospero, beset by hateful children, countrymen and servants, yet the co-delivery perhaps suggested that this was one part of the play shared in any interpretation – the need of the controlling figure to be released from obligation. It was a thought-provoking end to a bold production, and one hopes that its success will encourage the Tobacco Factory to invite the company back in future years.