"Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments"
The RSC may have Simon Russell Beale and cutting-edge digital technology but the Southwark Playhouse has real heart when it comes to The Tempest. I missed the press night, which had the happy consequence of meaning that I actually got to watch this Shakespeare for Schools production with its intended audience, hordes of schoolchildren of mixed ages who, by the show's end, were thoroughly rapt (though perhaps not quite as tear-stained as I).
Streamlined into 90 interval-less minutes and infused with a real sense of theatrical ingenuity, Amy Draper's production does a fantastic job of reinterpreting the Bard without dumbing him down. Anchored by a deeply compassionate Prospero from Sarah Malin, this Tempest is rooted in fallibility and forgiveness, the clear-sighted storytelling never letting us forget that it is only in the recognition of the former that we can expect the latter.
And through the enterprising tripling up of Gemma Lawrence (Miranda/Trincula/Antonio) and Benjamin Cawley (Ferdinand/Stephano/Sebastian), character changes seamlessly and clearly enabled by Ele Slade's intuitive costume design, compressed subplots engaged just as much as main narratives. Lawrence in particular shines as a tenderly romantic Miranda, a raucously enjoyable Trincula and a bitter-to-the-end Antonio.
Draper also makes great use of music composed by Candida Caldicot and percussionist Andrew Meredith, the latter of whom is present throughout, leading the ensemble on an array of diverse instruments from the moment we walk into the auditorium. The rich soundscape occasionally hints at tribalism but scores most effectively in suggesting the other-worldliness of the isle, an eeriness equally captured by Peter Caulfield's singing as Ariel.
Knotted up in a straitjacket, Caulfield is an extraordinary physical presence, matched by Stanton Plummer-Cambridge's seething Caliban, but the quietly calculated control of Malin's wronged Duke is wielded with iron force. Even against Ariel's raw anguish, she is resolute until the job is done, after which a truly magical swell of emotion breathes into her verse-speaking and her farewells to them both were something tear-jerkingly spectacular.
And that's special in itself as I am not usually so taken with The Tempest as a play but between this and the Donmar's production last year, I seem to find myself in a brave new world where female Prosperos literally rule. And I can't think of a better way to bring Shakespeare to life for younger audiences, than showing them from the start how playful and inventive it can be (because lord knows it isn't always this way).
Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 28th January