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.

Marooned boats in a magical woodland: Butterfly Theatre’s The Tempest at Bristol Shakespeare Festival 2015

Directed by Aileen Gonsalves, Butterfly Theatre’s production of The Tempest is a dynamic and exciting take on the play that benefits from its outdoor setting in Bristol’s Leigh Woods. It is one of the many innovative shows taking place this July as part of the Bristol Shakespeare Festival.

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The performance starts deep in Leigh Woods, as singing actors in yellow mackintoshes beckon the audience to pass under a symbolic sea. After this energetic beginning, the audience enters local artist Luke Jerram’s Withdrawn installation, comprising five fishing boats stranded in the woods. The Tempest’s themes of power, reconciliation and magic certainly resonate deeply here among the trees.

The cast of seven guide the audience through a promenade performance where maintaining the momentum is a key element. Prospero (Julian Protheroe) is masterful, surveying his island from a boat’s deck. His relationship with Miranda (Georgie Ashworth) is warm, and Miranda shrieks with appropriate girlishness when she falls for a wide-eyed and earnest Ferdinand (Owen Pullar).
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Ariel is played compellingly by Gail Sixsmith whose powerful movements convince. Caliban (Elliot Thomas) incites pity, but his raucous comic scenes with Trinculo (Matthew McPherson) and “Stephana” (Kate Ellis) excite much laughter amongst the audience.

Though truncated, the production remains faithful to the outlines of the play-text and makes good use of the boats for dramatic effect. The soundscape created by Jonnie Harrison is an interesting mix of drums, instrumental music and singing. And the effect of the music appearing as if from among the trees adds to the magical, slightly eerie atmosphere.
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A play like The Tempest benefits from the unusual outdoor setting, and Butterfly Theatre manage to keep the standing audience happy throughout as the drama and magic unfold amongst the boats.

All images by Elle de Burgh

The Tempest in Leigh Woods ran from 11-17 July.

To find out more about Bristol Shakespeare Festival, go here.

To find out more about Butterfly Theatre, go here.

To find out more about Luke Jerram’s Withdrawn installation, go here.

“We’re all excavators in some way…” In this exclusive interview, Filter Theatre’s Oliver Dimsdale and Poppy Miller tell us about the formative experiences and bold choices that led to their their radical take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth

Images courtesy of Farrows Creative, Bristol.

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Filter Theatre’s maverick style puts sound and music at the centre of all their productions, and their interpretations of Shakespeare are no exception. Artistic Director and founding member Oliver Dimsdale played the title role in their recent production of Macbeth. He and Poppy Miller (Lady Macbeth) both performed Shakespeare for the first time in their early teens, and it was then that they fell in love with the rhythms and imagery of his lines. We met them to discuss staging Shakespeare and their relationships with the Bard.

What was your earliest experience of Shakespeare, and what did you think of it at the time?

Oliver: “Mine was at my secondary school when I was about 13 years old. I auditioned to be in the lower school play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I got the part of Puck. Until then I’d never really keyed in to Shakespeare; I’d seen a couple of Shakespeare shows and it hadn’t really hit me. Up until that point I’d never been able to commit to memory text like it. Puck especially has wonderful verse and I just loved the rhythm. I had a fairly bad stammer when I was younger and it gave me a very real voice on stage. That’s my first memory of Shakespeare: a means by which to express myself through magnificent verse.”

Poppy: “My dad, who died 25 years ago, was a very erudite man. He was a teacher and used to do lots of amateur dramatics at the Maddermarket Theatre in Norwich, where I grew up. I used to go and watch him play big parts and then I started getting involved as well. I auditioned to play Miranda when I was 14 and ended up doing the play with my dad which was amazing. I’ve got some photographs of us doing that together. I have very magical and special memories of that because it was my first experience of real theatres and people being passionate about Shakespeare.”

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Do you have a favourite Shakespeare play?

Poppy: “I’m quite keen on The Tempest. I think that, as with Macbeth, some of the speeches are just jaw-dropping.”

Oliver:King Lear is a big one for me. It probably ties into having done it for GCSE. I think I was starting to get into the possibilities and the power of Shakespeare and perhaps it’s a hangover from that. I’ve seen a couple of productions of it as well that have transported me. It’s thrillingly dark and horrendous.”

Filter Theatre produces truly unique adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. How do you develop from the play texts to these productions?

Poppy: “A very initial development process is to whack a load of paper on the walls and write on it what we love about the play, what we’re afraid about making a mess of or doing in a dull way – we get all our ideas and fears out straight away. Then we can really start to focus on core elements, so with Macbeth it would be the Weird Sisters, or the banquet, or the heath.

“Ideas of sound are never far from the mix. Tom Haines, the sound designer and composer, built many of the things we play in this production, so we had a huge pallet to work with.

“We’re quite bold with the filleting of the play. We had a dramaturg this time: experienced Shakespeare scholar and director Simon Reade, and he was very helpful. We’d go ‘What about sounds in this play?’ and he’d come back the next day with a full list of all the references to sound.”

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Oliver: “With new works we tend to focus on narrative first, though sound still plays an important role. But with Shakespeare we have the story there already, so we feel as if we have a good head start and can just crack on with finding ways we can deconstruct and put together.”

How did you prepare for your roles?

Poppy: “In my experience of playing a Shakespeare role over a long period, you find out more every week, and you can only do that by learning it and then trying to put yourself out of the picture. Inevitably your actor’s worries come up – I think we’re still asking ourselves questions now because there are so many possibilities and ways of playing it. In this production we’ve chosen proximity at places where you wouldn’t normally have it; for example, the only time our characters are intimate is in front of loads of other people in quite a grotesque way, whereas a lot of productions would have a much more…”

Oliver: “Sexual charge.”

Poppy: “Yes – he comes to the castle and they consume their ambition, and that’s almost better than the end itself.

“We’ve also stylised the movement a little bit, so there are always questions. But that’s good, I think. You just have to commit to the version you’re giving. Like with all great Shakespeare parts you feel a weight of something, which is ‘I’m going to be rubbish,’ basically. But once you’re doing it I think you have a direct connection with the character.”

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Are there any scenes or speeches when you feel that pressure most strongly, or any you particularly enjoy playing?

Poppy: “I have always really liked that scene after the murders, with the two of them. I think it’s just so brilliantly written, and the way Shakespeare’s written his half- and quarter-lines is just amazing dialogue with, when Macbeth talks about sleep, some of the most beautiful but domestic images. He’s talking about a jumper that’s fraying – or that’s how I see it!

“I think the summoning the spirits speech is great when you’re doing it, but it’s always had a whiff of failure about it for me. I did a really interesting workshop with an amazing Russian director – I’m not going to name any names. Myself and a lot of other actors were at the RSC and had been there about six months. And every time any of us stood up as Lady Macbeth, we’d breathe in and he’d go, ‘Niet.’ Just the way you breathed in wasn’t right! But I think you’ve got to remember it’s a woman. It’s a woman who’s in a very isolated place, who has a lot of capabilities but not the means to get what she wants, and all these things we can identify with.

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Some people might say your productions are not how Shakespeare intended his plays to be performed. What would you say to them?

Oliver: “The first thing I’d say to that is that no one actually knows what he intended, unless we can go back in time and speak to him. Basically we’re all excavators in some way. There are many brilliant scholars who keep on unearthing little titbits of information that might lead us a little bit closer to how it would have been done at the time, but I think a piece of art should keep on creating and moving.

“I often go to the Globe, and I love it there – knowing the actors can see whites of the eyes of the audience in broad daylight – where many of the clothes have been made in the original way and the jigs at the end are magnificent. It’s absolutely got a very strong place in our telling of Shakespeare stories now.

And I think at the same time, there can be many more braver productions than we dare to do, that have just as much of a right to be around. So I think the so-called Shakespeare purists, whatever that means, whoever they are, whatever their purpose is, are perhaps barking up the wrong tree, because there are many shapes and forms Shakespeare can take.”

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Poppy: “I think the thing to say about all of us in this company is that we do really, really love Shakespeare. Sometime people misunderstand our approach; they think it’s not possible to improve on Shakespeare. But that’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re inspired by, and every word of our Macbeth is, Shakespeare.”

Read more about Filter Theatre’s Macbeth in Issue 5 of Shakespeare Magazine.