mon 20/05/2024

The Tempest, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse | reviews, news & interviews

The Tempest, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

The Tempest, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Shakespeare's late play proves a leave-taking on multiple fronts

Leave-taking: Tim McMullan as Prospero in Dominic Dromgoole's final Globe productionall photos by Marc Brenner

A prevailing sense of farewell ripples through this closing production in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse's hugely welcome season of Shakespeare's final quartet of plays. That valedictory feel is traditionally true of The Tempest, a text commonly regarded as Shakespeare's own leave-taking and one that here also marks the final staging after a decade at the helm of the venue's sure-to-be-missed artistic director Dominic Dromgoole, who now hands over the reins to Emma Rice.

It's tempting, of course, at such moments to view the staging itself as some sort of summary achievement whereby a director's entire output is distilled into three hours. But while there are particular aspects of this Tempest that seem Globe-inflected to the core (I love the opening shipwreck all but spilling over into the spectators watching from either side), the production isn't definitive and need not be taken as such, even if it does have in Dominic Rowan and Trevor Fox possibly the best Trinculo-Stephano double act that I have yet seen.

Clutching his butt of sack for dear life, Fox's Stephano is the drunken balladeer in extremis and he finds an inspired match in Rowan's ad-lib-heavy Trinculo, who pauses to inquire of a person seated down front, "Parla Italiano?"

The Tempest, Sam Wanamaker PlayhousePrior to that, he enters the action in self-announced search of a "concierge", sounding throughout like John Cleese on some sort of exotic holiday – though quite how exotic isn't made fully clear until he makes the acquaintance of Fisayo Akinade's plaintive and very fine Caliban (pictured above), who, in an inspired gesture, reaches across to hug Stephano as if some sort of human reprieve were finally at hand.  

The production is at its best with such apparent incidentals and in mining newfound gold from characters who can sometimes be sidelined. Christopher Logan's snarky Sebastian conjures up a Shakespearean Sean Hayes, the nobles intriguingly depicted as a none-too-harmonious assemblage who may have spent too much time together, not least in that difficult journey from sea to dry land. Brendan O'Hea's Antonio has the clarity of speech that has always typified Dromgoole's work, and fellow Globe veteran Joseph Marcell's Gonzalo cuts a contrastingly benign presence amidst the depredations at work around him. 

Where the production doesn't quite score – and what ends up blunting its impact – is in the Prospero of Tim McMullan, a wonderful actor whose gifts for dry comedy and deadpan drollery have scored across a spectrum of work ranging from Feydeau to Shaw but don't especially equate to the philosopher-shaman, Prospero, and the climactic reckoning that this putative Shakespearean alter ego undergoes during the play.

The Tempest, Sam Wanamaker PlayhouseLow-voiced and bearded, this Prospero is a bookish chap whose "library" is glimpsed at the rear of Jonathan Fensom's set, and the actor strikes a coyly playful relationship with his captive-cum-confidante, Ariel (the superb Pippa Nixon, pictured above left, a Natalie Portman lookalike as she shadows the various characters, forever insinuating herself into events). Prospero's qualities as theatremaker are aptly evident, too, from a fleeting tableau at the very start. What's missing is the poetic release in this of all plays, accompanied of course by the parental release by which Prospero gives over his beloved teenage Miranda (a fretful Phoebe Pryce) into the tender arms of Ferdinand (Dharmesh Patel, makng something genuinely sweet out of a thankless role). 

One wants on some level to weep for – or at least be stirred by – Prospero as he forsakes his daughter, his art, and perhaps even his life on the way to that defining epilogue which, Ariel-style, leaves it to us to complete the experience. I admired this Tempest and its leading man without being moved by it, but Dromgoole's tenure, as here encapsulated within the very playhouse that he so championed, will without a doubt be missed. 

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