The Tempest

MATILDA WNEK is frustrated by the storytelling strategy of a production that is less than the sum of its parts.

abi bennet Ben Blyth Corpus island mainshow matilda wnek Shakespeare The Movement toby parker rees

Corpus Playrooms, 15th-19th March, 7pm, £5-6

Directed by Ben Blyth

[rating: 3.5/5]

The director (Ben Blyth) starts from a brilliant conviction: that theatre ought to play to its unique selling point instead of aspire to mimic reality as television or cinema are able to much better. This means interactiveness, physicality, stage presence, imagination and puppetry and live music. But what makes these things devices of theatre rather than just nice to look at is how they are used to enhance the art of storytelling, and in the case of The Tempest many of the more theatrical decisions felt arbitrary and at odds with the play itself, and much of the momentum of the plot was lost. If the play’s concern is with ‘how and why we tell stories’ as Blyth claims, this particular story didn’t seem to be his priority.

Already at the start of the play, the exiled Prospero (Adam Drew) and his daughter Miranda (a beautifully energetic Abi Bennet) have been living on their island for twelve years, and the action begins on a day of culmination. Miranda is to discover the story of their arrival (something she is said to have asked many times before) and Prospero is to face his treacherous brother whose fault it all is. This means that, unlike convention, we don’t open on ordinary action that is to acquire significance later, but the characters themselves feel the weight of the moment.

Nothing in the production reflected this, and the opening recounting of the story, whilst well performed by the miming actors, was treated as something to be dispensed with before the action could begin. When Prospero says “The hour has now come”, he is not referring to the ‘wearied exposition’ of having to explain the past to Miranda because it is catching up with him, he chose to bring the past into his world by arranging a storm to get them there.

Photographs by Joe Taylor

And even if he is bored with his own story, which is also the least entertaining reading of the play for an audience, it seems a strange directorial decision to hurry past it in production, cluttering and covering it with an assortment of ‘theatrical devices’ which were not integrated with the actual recounting. Thought for how the theatricality affects our understanding of the circumstances of the play seemed to have been missing.It was unclear, for example, whether Prospero was commanding the puppet show, summoning it with his thoughts or completely unaware of it.

This was partly due to a recurring fault of the production: Prospero just didn’t have any authority onstage. Robbed of his opening scene of storm-creation, he needed to have a clearer role as the author of the action and the central force of the island, for his eventual renunciation to have any impact. He was left without any real position onstage, only a desk here he sat with his back to the audience in between his lines, and so wandered around aimlessly during them. So little authorship did he have, he even read his lines from a book.

The result was that the body of action had no context to give it weight, despite being very entertaining at times. It must be said that the ‘third plot’ with the new arrivals was performed superbly. The contrast between the gullible Gonzalo (Max Upton) and the beastly Sebastian (Toby Jones) was a joy to watch. The comic thread was excellent too, and featured a fantastic Toby Parker-Rees as erratic jester Trinculo, in whose performance we started to appreciate the USP of theatre; his acting sort of embodied the commentary leading up to this production. It was acting about acting, which was acting theatrically in the new sense given it by The Movement.

But while there was enormous talent onstage (and in the lighting box) and lots of great moments, as a production of The Tempest, it fails. The various aspects of theatrical device weren’t used to emphasise or manage elements of the story, and no space was allowed for relationships to be displayed. An exciting effort, but the whole is much less than the sum of its parts.