(Antic Disposition, Middle Temple Hall, 20 August – 3 September 2011)
Yes, I know what you’re thinking. ‘She didn’t go to see The Tempest again?!’ Well, yes; I did. Yesterday, while browsing Google in search of other reviews of the Haymarket production, I stumbled across a website for this version also currently being performed in London. I liked the sound of the young and independent theatre company, Antic Disposition (founded in 2005), and was impressed by the reviews of their previous Shakespeare productions. Plus, they were performing The Tempest at Middle Temple Hall, the glorious Elizabethan dining hall of one of the Inns of Court, where Twelfth Night received its very first performance.
I couldn’t resist the chance to compare two versions of the same play at such close quarters; nor could I pass up the opportunity to see a play in this venue, where Shakespeare himself had watched his words come to life. And tonight, at last, I felt the magic of the play. Perhaps I’m just going through a stage where I prefer intimate performance spaces and fairly minimalist productions. There were about 100 people in the audience and it felt as if we were right in the heart of the story. The only props in the entire play were a series of chests placed around the set, which doubled up as boulders, and a rope. Yet that didn’t matter: my imagination easily conjured up the rest.
There’s no way that I can write a review of this performance without comparing it to the Haymarket version; but Antic Disposition can rest assured that they transported and absorbed me in a way that the Haymarket show, with its big names and big budget, simply didn’t manage. This production I saw tonight never flagged: everything galloped along at a brisk pace and I think this was the result of sympathetic editing to the text. I noticed that some parts from Monday’s performance were missing, but I didn’t miss them. One thing I would note was that the acoustics of the Hall sometimes muddied the clarity slightly when the actors were facing away from me (the audience sits in a C shape around the stage). As a result of this, the opening shipwreck scene was still difficult for me to understand, but after two viewings I think I’ve figured out the general gist of it, which is ‘Get out of the way, we’re all about to drown!’
The actors were all superb and generally (in my opinion) surpassed those at the Haymarket. I still think that Elisabeth Hopper’s Miranda at the Haymarket was excellent, especially in her delivery of the lines; but Ami Sayers invested her Miranda with such wide-eyed awe and fascination that she was also a delight to watch. I loved her kittenish examination of Ferdinand when they first meet: you could really believe that she was absorbed by this strange new creature. Antic Disposition’s Ferdinand (Robin Rightmyer) was much more mature and self-confident than the Haymarket’s; he was very natural and easy, and as I happened to be sitting next to a friend of his, I can say that he deserves a special mention for his beautifully-modulated English accent; for he is, in fact, American. The scene where he was at his labours moving boxes – only for Ariel to whisk away those he’d already set down – was a lovely invention.
Another clever idea was to introduce Alonso, Antonio, Gonzalo and Sebastian as Prospero mentioned them in his speech to Miranda at the beginning (one of the problems of the Haymarket was that I wasn’t quite sure who was who; whereas here, it was all beautifully clear). Antonio in particular struck me; he was very cool and calculating, and in the scene where he invites Sebastian to slaughter Alonso in his sleep, I had an unnerving sense of menace. Stefano and Trinculo were both great; Trinculo (Ben Benson) here was smartly turned-out in a suit and fez, and he was played as an endearing muppet rather than a clown proper, while David Pibworth, playing Stefano, took the art of being sozzled to a whole new level. Tony Austin’s Caliban was a more straightforward, rather brutish approach to the role, with the odd comedic inflexion which worked very well. He didn’t have the deep nobility of the Haymarket’s Caliban, but these were two nuanced interpretations which both worked very well in their own way.
Prospero and Ariel were the two roles that I had trouble with at the Haymarket; and to my utter delight, I thought them both excellent in tonight’s performance. Their Prospero (Richard Franklin) delivered his lines fluidly and with such feeling that I did care about him, and was thoroughly convinced by him. He combined poise and dignity with deep benevolence: the ideal scholar-prince. His relationship with Ariel was very touching, and the final scene where he finally releases the spirit from his service was a bittersweet conclusion: Prospero’s satisfaction in Ariel’s joy seemed to be matched by regret to see him go. Ariel was a delight to watch, and not only because he was rather beautiful. He played the spirit as swift, graceful and gentle, ultimately humane despite his mischief with Ferdinand; and furthermore he had a lovely voice.
I had initial qualms when I realised that this production would have songs too, but here they were kept short and delivered so well that they complemented the play rather than interrupting it. As for the nuptial pageant, which I thought so overblown at the Haymarket, it was here simplified to its essentials and consequently I thought it much better: Ariel simply stood on a box in a golden robe and sang, accompanied by the cast members who weren’t currently on stage and who sang from the shadows. It was succinct, magical and rather moving – which actually sums up my feelings about the play as a whole.
This little company deserves to be supported and so I urge you either to go see this production, if you can make it before Saturday, or keep your eyes open for their future shows. An easy familiarity with Shakespeare’s language, passion, simplicity and a knack for finding beautiful settings all seem to be hallmarks of their work, and I can’t wait for next year’s programme to be announced.