Last year we caught up with actor and author Nick Asbury while he was co-starring in Shakespeare in Love: The Play. He entertained us with tales of his Macbeth-quoting father, what it means to commute between London and Stratford-upon-Avon, and tackling Shakespeare’s History Plays – not once, but twice!

As a resident of Stratford-Upon-Avon, how do you feel about Shakespeare’s houses and the tourist trail? Do you interact with it?
“If you go into the centre of town it’s inevitable, it’s all around you. My partner’s daughter goes to school near Anne Hathaway’s Cottage so it’s pretty unavoidable for us. The schools go and walk around Shakespeare’s Birthplace and I tell her how lucky she is to get to see all of this. She does appreciate it.
“Then, of course, inevitably you’re walking down Henley Street and there’s a thousand tourists in the way… But I’d rather live there and celebrate it than not.” 

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Do you have a favourite place in Stratford-Upon-Avon? Somewhere you’d like to sit and spend a Sunday, perhaps?
“The Welcombe Hills. It’s as big as Hampstead Heath, but sometimes you can go there and be the only person there. There’s the most stunning view across the Malverns in the West, the Feldon parkland to the East, and all the way over to the Cotswolds, and over the whole of Stratford. It’s an incredibly peaceful and beautiful place. Because I know that Shakespeare used to walk across there every day to his Grandparents in Snitterfield, there’s a link between history and now and the future. It all feels rather circular once you’re up there. It’s wonderful.”

Is that something that resonates with you on stage also? Do you ever think “I’m walking in the man’s footsteps” and reflect on that?
“I think any actor that has done a lot of Shakespeare feels that to some extent. There is no doubt that living in Stratford and coming to London to perform for a week then going home at the weekend is a rather extraordinary journey.
“I come from the middle of nowhere in Herefordshire. I’m a country boy who went to London when I was in my early twenties, and tried to make my way, then progressed to Stratford. Shakespeare was up and down like a whore’s drawers, by all accounts. It is a very particular place, Stratford. It’s on the cusp of North, South, East, and West. Between the Forest of Arden and the wheat fields of the south east of England – Shakespeare grew up straddling all of these things.”

Nick in the RSC’s Histories, 2006

Nick in the RSC’s Histories, 2006

There’s often a London versus Stratford divide. People debate which is the true spiritual home of Shakespeare and which is the lesser…
“Well, they both are! One informs the other, and in my opinion it’d be difficult for any artist, let alone a playwright, to not be informed by who they are and where they come from. Similarly, all the arguments about who wrote Shakespeare and so on are utter spurious bollocks – and you can quote me on that.”

How is the Shakespeare in Love show?
“It’s brilliant. It’s a really fun show to do. I’m playing the baddie Colin Firth part, so I get to literally twiddle my moustache. It’s just great fun! What it does do is take these wonderful verses from Romeo and Juliet and add something that makes it clear. You have people in the audience who hear these great tracts and go ‘Oh yes! Now I understand it!’ And that is a wonderful introduction to Shakespeare. It may be a flight of fancy, but it’s a wonderful tool.”

The RSC’s Courtyard Theatre – Nick appeared in both its first and its last performance. Pic by Nic Asbury

The RSC’s Courtyard Theatre – Nick appeared in both its first and its last performance. Pic by Nic Asbury

Do you have a favourite Shakespeare film?
“Blimey. I’ve never even thought about it! I saw Roman Polanski’s Macbeth at school and was very marked by it.”

Do you recall your first Shakespeare experience?
“My father used to just quote Shakespeare all the time, then after a while I realised that it was only ever Macbeth. He’d been in it six times – he was a rather noted Lady Macbeth at school, I think. So he’d say ‘Oh, what’s that line?’ and we’d say ‘Well, it must be Macbeth’ and he’d say ‘Well, how do you know!’. Bless him.
“I did see a wonderful production of Macbeth, I’ve no idea who it was by, in the old Nell Gwynne theatre in Hereford. Not much came to Hereford in the ’70s. It must have been a kid’s production. They did Macbeth with four actors and I remember being completely mesmerised. We were about 50 miles from Stratford so we used to go on school trips and stuff. I saw Johnathan Pryce doing his Macbeth there – it all revolves around Macbeth, doesn’t it? I saw loads of productions there – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Winter’s Tale, all that sort of stuff, in the early-to-mid-’80s.”

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And you ended up becoming a Shakespearean actor yourself.
“I joined the RSC and did Michael Boyd’s original productions of Henry VI Parts 1, 2, and 3 and Richard III, and then repeated them all again in 2006 and 2008. I actually think Henry VI Part 2 is now my favourite play, which sounds a bit wilfully different but it’s just because I’ve done it so much. I play the Duke of Somerset and in that particular play I think he’s got about ten lines, but he’s on all the time. It is a wonderful piece of theatre. Shakespeare never writes a line for someone that isn’t needed, so in my view there has to be a reason why that person’s onstage. There should never be any spear carriers in Shakespeare. There always has to be a reason for that person to be on stage, so the stakes are withdrawn if you have a spear carrier, because what are they doing there? Everyone has to have a purpose.”

When you look back at that extraordinary journey with the History Cycle, is there a moment that you remember particularly clearly?
“There are hundreds. In the Histories company of 2006-8 we lost three fathers. A baby was conceived, born, and a year later got up and said some words on the stage – in the same job! When she did that we realised the length and importance of a job like that. We had shared so much together. Birth, marriages, death.”

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These people must be like family to you?
“Oh yeah, they are. It’s unlike any other job, and when we see each other we just click straight back in. It’s wonderful.”

If in ten years time they said ‘Let’s do it again’, what would you say?
“Yeah. I don’t think I’d have a choice. You can never recreate the past, but you can ignite the present. We did the original Henry VIs, then took what we had and made it, hopefully, better when we did it again. If we kept that spirit maybe we could do it again!”

Midsummer Night's Dream on Meon Hill, Warwickshire – Pic by Nick Asbury

Midsummer Night’s Dream on Meon Hill, Warwickshire – Pic by Nick Asbury

Is there a character in Shakespeare that you haven’t had a chance to do but you’d love to play?
“Macbeth I haven’t played. I’d love to. I’d love to do Coriolanus as well. I’d like to do something funny. I’d like to play Benedick. I’ve played Jacques and that was wonderful because Jacques is described as being melancholic – a misery guts – so in my mind it’s fairly boring if you turn up on stage being melancholic and a misery guts. You play it light, funny. It’s much more interesting to see someone hiding depression, which a lot of comics do, of course. They hide behind the funny, then you see a glimpse of darkness every now and again, at the end of the ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech or whatever. I loved playing Jacques purely because of that.”

A big part of the RSC is bringing Shakespeare to new generations and young minds. Is that something you’re passionate about?
“Shakespeare can be incredibly accessible if it’s done in the right way. It doesn’t matter whether the audience is adults or children. Kids, when they listen to adults talking, will siphon out what they don’t understand. They take it for granted that they won’t understand everything, so they just take what they can get from it. As a consequence they’re there in the moment and really enjoying it.”

Nick’s book “White Hart, Red Lion: The England of Shakespeare’s Histories”

Nick’s book “White Hart, Red Lion: The England of Shakespeare’s Histories”

Are you working on another book?
“Yes! It’s a novel about a bloke in 1561, a historical novel based on the research I did for White Hart, Red Lion. Which was three years worth of research and I did another year’s worth of research slightly later on, and on the civil war. I’m about a third of the way through it. It’s been slightly put on hold by doing Shakespeare in Love. I thought I was going to be able to write during the day and perform in the evening, but it’s virtually impossible. Having two different head spaces is hard. I cannot wait to get back into the book.”

Finally, how would your sum up Stratford-Upon-Avon to somebody who’s never been there?
“It’s not just pretty, it’s a living place too. It’s not just the theatre, not just Ye Olde Stratforde, there is a life and a breadth to it too. It’s a rather wonderful English town in the sense that it’s cosmopolitan, it looks outwards.”

For further reading, check out these Shakespeare books by Nick Asbury:

Exit Pursued by a Badger: An Actor’s Journey through History with Shakespeare

White Hart, Red Lion: The England of Shakespeare’s Histories

How Shakespeare’s vibrant London neighbourhood of Bankside will be celebrating the Bard’s life and legacy in April 2016

Please credit the photographer John Tramper
[Image by John Tramper]

Home to Shakespeare’s Globe, The Rose Playhouse, Southwark Cathedral and The George Inn, London’s Bankside celebrates its Shakespearean history with a host of special events including walks, theatre performances and themed menus.

Shakespeare’s Globe – The Complete Walk, 23-24 April
Visitors are invited on a journey along the bank of the Thames to experience an extraordinary celebration of Shakespeare’s works. 37 screens along a 2.5 mile route through Bankside and beyond will show a series of specially-made short films. Actors including Simon Russell Beale, Peter Capaldi, Dominic West, Hayley Atwell and Zawe Ashton will perform scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, shot in the places hovering in his imagination. Visitors can expect to see The Merchant of Venice’s Shylock within the Venetian Jewish ghetto, and Hamlet at Elsinore’s Kronborg castle.

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Actor Simon Russell Beale

Hamlet, 23-24 April 2016
The Globe’s unprecedented world tour of Hamlet returns home for a weekend of celebratory final performances, marking 400 years since Shakespeare’s death. Tickets are currently sold out but more are due to be released in the weeks before the performance.

Southwark Cathedral
The tombstone of William’s brother Edmund Shakespeare, who was an actor, lies between the choir stalls in Southwark Cathedral, the oldest cathedral church building in London. Shakespeare’s troupe of actors lodged here, and the choir at the Cathedral prospered during Shakespeare’s day when Southwark was the entertainment centre of London. A Shakespeare monument and stained glass window (depicting characters from some of his plays) is the Cathedral’s most popular memorial.

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In collaboration with Shakespeare’s Globe, a specially curated service will take place at 11am on Saturday 23 April. The service is invitation only and will blend liturgical worship, music and performance, while drawing on material from Shakespeare’s late romances.

It will be followed by Find Me a Publisher at 2pm, the story of Heminge and Condell and the journey of the First Folio towards publication. The event will feature lute songs and performances from Arthur Smith, Rick Jones and Jane Jones. Find Me a Publisher is free and open to the public.

On Friday 22 April and Friday 29 April at 11am there will be guided walks uncovering the history of Bankside and the links between the Bard and the Cathedral.
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The Rose Playhouse
Bankside’s original Tudor theatre – where Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part I and Titus Andronicus were first performed – will kick off celebrations with a midnight performance of Much Ado About Nothing on Friday 22 April. Wolf Sister Productions and director Alex Pearson stage a modern take on the much-loved Shakespearean comedy.

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Measure for Measure
, co-directed by Simon Rodda and Rebecca Rogers, will follow from 10 May to 26 May 2016. Tickets £12

Every Saturday from 10am – 5pm, explore the fascinating history of The Rose and its exciting future. At present, two-thirds of the original foundations have been excavated and protected for future generations to experience. The Rose Theatre Trust is now engaged in raising funds to excavate the remaining third and to make the site a permanent display as an educational and historical resource for the public to learn from and enjoy.

WALKS AND TOURS

Shakespeare’s Bankside – a walk with John Constable
Wednesday 27 April at 7pm-8.30pm and Sunday 8 May at 2pm-3.30pm.
Join local historian, writer and playwright John Constable to discover Shakespeare’s Bankside.
On this free walk, visit the sites of famous playhouses – set among bear-pits and brothels. Constable’s popular Bankside walks reveal the human face of The Bard in the place where he and his fellow actors lived, worked and partied.
Walks start at Shakespeare’s Globe and finish at The George Inn. Duration: 1.5 hours.

FOOD AND DRINK

Bread Ahead bakery in Borough Market will be serving Honey and Mead doughnuts as the order of the day, filling their famous decadent doughnuts with an Elizabethan twist. On Sunday 24 April they will run two half-day workshops – The Bread Ahead Ye Olde Introduction to English Baking – where participants will learn how to make Lardy Cake, a classic white tin and Manchet, an Elizabethan bread recipe.
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British restaurant Roast will offer a special menu from 18-24 April, with typical dishes of the era, along with special cocktails. On 23 April, the bar will be full of themed activity including small plays, a children’s choir, mandolin guitar player, and a prize giveaway for all diners to enter.

Gordon Ramsay’s Union Street Café will celebrate Shakespeare with a special menu of authentic dishes from Venice, Verona and Vicenza – the exotic corner of Northern Italy imagined in The Merchant of Venice, The Two Gentleman of Verona, and Romeo and Juliet. Enjoy a feast of baccala, bigoli pasta and Venetian fried cream from 23 April to 22 May.
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The four-course dinner menu, including a Romeo & Juliet cocktail on arrival, is £40 per person, or £55 with matching wines.

Following an extensive refurbishment, and to coincide with Shakespeare’s anniversary, the Swan Restaurant at Shakespeare’s Globe has re-opened its doors with a vibrant new look and new menu. Diners can experience a Midsummer Night’s Dream-themed afternoon tea for the occasion from 23 April. The new Hilton London Bankside will offer an honorary cocktail menu in The Distillery bar.

Bankside’s nearest tubes are London Bridge/Southwark, while its closest train stations are London Bridge/Blackfriars.

Go here for more information on all Bankside’s activities.

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The tagline for her one-woman show To She Or Not To She is “Get stuffed, Will!”, but Emma Bentley is a lifelong Shakespeare fan with a fresh – and funny – feminist message

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Writer and actor Emma Bentley plays a parodic version of herself in one-woman show To She Or Not To She, beginning at 14 years old when it is announced that the year nine spring term play is going to be Hamlet.

Emma knows she is perfect for the lead role: she grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon, knows all about Shakespeare, and (not to boast or anything) she’s the best actor in the school. Her gender doesn’t occur to her as being a problem, until her drama teacher informs her post-audition that she “just couldn’t see Hamlet as a girl”.

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Bentley says: “I chose Shakespeare because before I went to drama school I thought I knew a lot about him, and then at LIPA [Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts] I realised how much more complex the plays are. So it was a process of finding out for me. I also am not that good at really serious, intense emotional scenes – I prefer comedy.”

Bentley brings her experience in mime and clowning to the excellent caricatures she presents – a particular highlight is Emma’s diva-ish classmate Jimmy Danish, a Cumberbatch wannabe with a swagger and a quiff, who tells her she should audition for Ophelia because “You’d look really cool drowned”.

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The show’s quirky style and close rapport with its audience are key to its appeal. Alongside the laughs, however, comedy proves a useful mechanism for making people think. Walking home from school in the rain, the young Emma mourns her Hamlet-that-might-have-been. Soaked to the skin, it is as if she becomes Ophelia – side-lined as mad for defying the status quo, and ultimately disposed of with very little fuss. The moment prompts us to wonder how many other young potential female Hamlets are turned into Ophelias as early as their first auditions.

To She Or Not To She is part of a recent upsurge in female actors playing male Shakespearean heroes, notably Harriet Walter’s Henry IV (at the Donmar Warehouse) and Maxine Peake’s Hamlet (at the Manchester Royal Exchange), alongside all-female companies like the Smooth-Faced Gentlemen. But for Bentley there is still a long way to go before female actors have access to the same opportunities as their male counterparts.

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“I did see Peake’s Hamlet in the cinema, and people’s reactions around me were, ‘I wasn’t even thinking about the fact she’s a woman!’” she says. “But female actors in leading Shakespearean roles are still really quite rare in this country and I don’t think they get the recognition they deserve. I feel like that’s quite a depressing answer [to your question]! I think things are changing, just not very quickly, which can be frustrating. I would love it if To She Or Not To She was part of a trend of productions that would get things moving faster.”

“Countries like France and Germany are great for taking Shakespeare and mixing things up. Maybe because there is not that sense of it being a traditional part of their culture in same way, so they’re happy to pull it apart and cut out whole scenes, or look at a character a different light. In the UK, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a conscious thing, the weight of tradition can hold people back.”

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Bentley is certainly comfortable pulling Shakespeare apart – as To She Or Not To She follows Emma through drama school and her attempts to forge an acting career, lines from the plays compare her situation with those of male Shakespearean characters, making a convincing case for how relevant they are to her (female) experiences.

Particularly effective towards the end of the play are Bentley’s original lines written in iambic pentameter. She says, “It’s a generalisation, but I think girls can often be more confident in Shakespeare [than with other plays]”.

And it is through Shakespeare’s rhythms and language that Emma can express her desperation for female voices in theatre. What she wants is not just to be allowed to play male roles, but to find female roles that are crazy, drunk, passionate or brave.

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Although it is intrinsically honest, in places the show verges on didactic where it could allow its audience a little more space and time to draw conclusions for themselves, but Bentley is the first to admit that the show is a work in progress.

“The production is constantly changing – the ending especially has changed a lot. At one point it ended with my character getting a job at the Globe, but I felt like I was just making things up as I’ve never actually been lucky enough to work there, so it wasn’t… honest.

“I’ve also cut the jig at the end [a Globe-style song and dance], even though I love doing it, because people fed back that they felt I just needed to leave time for the final scene to resonate, rather than dancing around as if everything’s OK.”

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It might be the influence of the show, but Bentley seems oddly similar to popular conceptions of Shakespeare – humble, self-parodying and often witty. While To She Or Not To She is a serious reflection on sexism in the acting profession, it is also very comfortable exposing (and laughing at) the pretentiousness that often creeps into an actor’s life, with lines like “Did I play Hamlet? Or did Hamlet play me? That is the question”.

Asked which Shakespearean parts she would most like to play, Bentley muses: “I think I’d have to say Hamlet – I know it’s a cliché, but I feel like this is the right moment for me to take on that role. You hear older actors saying they wish they’d done Hamlet, and I feel like if it doesn’t happen for me in the next three years, it probably never will.

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“I’d also like to play Feste – I’ve played him at drama school but would love to do it again. Directors of Twelfth Night tend to see Feste’s as the lines to cut – he’s just talking nonsense, right? – but having played him and realised what he’s saying, I find there’s so much there that really resonates with life today.”

To She Or Not To She is produced by Joue Le Genre and is touring to Broadway Theatre Catford and Arts Theatre Leicester Square in the UK this month.

Go here for more information and tickets.

BBC School Radio launches ‘Shakespeare Retold’ adaptations of the Bard’s plays for primary schools

BBC School Radio, part of BBC Learning’s online service for schools, has launched ‘Shakespeare Retold’ – a series of retellings of ten of Shakespeare’s most famous plays – specially adapted for modern primary school audiences.

Available to download from the BBC website, the stories have been written by leading children’s authors such as Frank Cottrell Boyce, Pamela Butchart and Jamila Gavin, and readers include Simon Callow, Shirley Henderson and Julian Rhind-Tutt.

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King Lear

The retellings range from the irreverent silliness of Andy Stanton’s King Lear (who wears a ceremonial nose and eats a lot of pineapple) to the touching poignancy of Horatio Claire’s Hamlet Lives Forever, which sees Shakespeare telling the story of the doomed Prince of Denmark to the ghost of his late son Hamnet.

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Hamlet Lives Forever

They also include Pamela Butchart’s Macdeath, in which Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy is recounted by a young schoolgirl to her horrified class and teacher (and in which we learn that Lady Macbeth has a habit of pinching crisps from the other children on the playground!).

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Macdeath

In The Isle Of Noises, sailor Ned Blood helps out Mr. Shakespeare with the special effects for the Bard’s first production of The Tempest at the Blackfriars Indoor Playhouse, giving children a historical insight into the era’s theatre and stagecraft.

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The Isle of Noises

Each episode is 15 minutes long, and is accompanied by an audio interview with the author and a full set of downloadable teachers’ notes, giving ideas on how each play could be used in class.

“These stories should ensure that a new generation of Shakespeare fans are inspired by his incredible stories on the 400th anniversary of his death,” says Lisa Percy of BBC Learning.

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Henry V

Stuart Rathe, who wrote the teachers’ notes for the series, adds, “Primary School children love exciting stories, and these retellings are so much fun. They are a great way to celebrate both Shakespeare Week and as part of a wider whole school celebration of Shakespeare’s legacy in this very special year.”

BBC School Radio’s Shakespeare Retold has just been launched. Go here to access the broadcasts, downloads and teachers’ notes.

Shakespeare Week runs from 14-20 March. Go here to find out about Shakespeare Week.

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School present a revitalised production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest at the Redgrave Theatre, full of humour, dance and music

[Images by Toby Farrow]

Directed by Donnacadh O’Briain this comic re-telling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest amused and delighted the audience, showing off the talented Bristol Old Vic Theatre School graduates.

One of the tricky things about staging The Tempest is the play’s undertone of slapstick comedy, which at times jars with its more serious and magical elements. This BOVTS production at Clifton’s Redgrave Theatre decided to fully embrace the play’s comic and musical elements, updating them for 2016 with theatrical aplomb.

This was entirely fitting: by embracing the play’s more frivolous elements the production payed homage to the play’s rich afterlife, while seeking to enthral a new generation of Tempest-lovers.

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The farcical subplot was tackled by casting Stephano and Trinculo as wacky entertainers – swearing and coming out into the audience singing and clutching wine bottles. Jac Baylis played a camp Trinculo in white patent leather heels, matched by Tom Byrne’s comic and amped-up Stephano.

The pair’s jokes were provocative and cheeky, fully updated for their 2016 audience. But Shakespeare’s wordplay was never far – the comic explanation of the laboured ‘jerkin’ joke was clever, and reminded us of the original text’s aim to entertain.

In contrast, the play’s main plot stayed clear of these absurd elements –the lovers left to their innocent courtship, and Ariel, Prospero and Caliban locked in their eternal power struggle.

Danann McAleer was a gentle and wise Prospero, whereas Lily Donovan’s Miranda was full of emotion and youthful sensuality. Corey Montague-Sholay’s Ferdinand was young and playful, perfectly in sync with Miranda – childish squeals punctuating their lovers’ games.

Ariel (Dylan Wood) was eerie and his interactions with Prospero were profoundly moving, especially during the final ‘freeing’ scene. Ariel sang and moved beautifully, in contrast with Caliban (Josh Finan) who was a much earthier, boil-covered version of himself.

Caliban’s drunken antics with Stephano and Trinculo were funny, yet also poignant in his desperate enthusiasm for freedom. The spirited cast kept perfectly in time with Shakespeare’s tempo.

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The set design was simple and effective – suspended trees and a cloudy sky background representing the unspoilt nature of the isle. When the Neapolitan aristos arrived on the island, dressed in shiny shoes, suits and Ray-Bans, they looked wonderfully lost in this austere simplicity. Their masculine japes and peacock-like pruning were funny, but Gonzalo (Joey Akubeze) wasn’t as ridiculous as he is sometimes made out to be, cutting a more poignant, dignified figure here.

The island’s magic was threatening, weird and wonderful. Magic spirits were variously represented by hooded, chanting and dancing actors. The smallest of movements were used to create tension and suspense.

The magical masque commissioned by Prospero to celebrate Ferdinand’s and Miranda’s nuptials took a dark turn when it ended with a birth – Prospero rushing to the aid of the apparently lifeless ‘mother’ as Miranda cradled the ‘baby’. It was an interesting nod to Miranda’s absentee mother and her possible fate, perfectly timed at the cusp of Miranda’s marriage and burgeoning sexual maturity.