A Magical Tempest For Unnerving Times
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Theatre — and Shakespeare — is made for these times. With our own storm raging outside, there is no better vaccine than The Tempest at Jermyn Street to ward off fears, not only for our personal health but whether we will convene as an audience anytime soon. Director Tom Littler's heartfelt plea for our continued support of theatre set the mood and, not unlike a Prospero, conjured 'sweet airs' from the start.
Speaking of Prospero, he is usually a difficult character. His enslavement of the island's natives can be seen in the contest of imperialism. As a kind of alchemist who is happiest in his books, his clear unsuitability for political office makes his demands for restitution seem unwise.
Yet, when he appears, cloaked, white-bearded and vulnerable, we are given an all-too human Prospero by Michael Pennington, not an angry or bitter one. We watch a kind man, though one blessed with some powerful superpowers, go about his work to make amends, settle old scores, forgive and embrace love. Pennington's deep experience of Shakespeare makes his Prospero conversational and is the calm centre that anchors this production.
Littler's direction is inventive, turning a small stage into a charged and homespun environment for the otherworldly goings-on. In a scene-stealing performance as Ariel, Whitney Kehinde is the embodiment of spirit in all its uncanny fluidity and grace, moving between the stumbling and earth-bound humans with pagan intensity. Her relationship with Prospero is warm and contrasts with the ugliness between him and the 'monster,' Caliban, played by Tam Williams, in a horror-esque 'leather-face'.
Williams shows well the matter (or clay) to Ariel's spirit, yet manages to stop the heart when he delivers one of the play's most poetic speeches that begins: 'Be not afeared. The isle is full of noises. Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.' It remains astonishing how Shakespeare can give such words to his 'villains.'
As for the rest, the ship-wrecked courtiers march with mad-cap humour and drunkenness across the island and Trinculo's little asides go down well as they are led up the garden path by Caliban. Only one little gripe, the romance between Miranda and Ferdinand lacked some fire. A minor flaw in what was a magical performance in an equally magical setting.
Jermyn Street Theatre, 16b Jermyn Street, SW1Y 6ST, £5-£31. Until 4 April
Last Updated 17 March 2020