I thought I was very brave choosing to attend Iris Theatre’s “immersive”, “party at the end of the world” production of The Tempest, since while I’m one for Shakespeare, I’m generally too nervous and shy for participation. I went in the end because, hey, it sounds different, fun, and possibly ridiculous in enjoyable ways. My predictions were absolutely right. The production is both enjoyable and very uneven.
The gorgeous, hidden-in-plain sight space of St. Paul’s Church gardens, right in Covent Garden, cries out for a Shakespeare-in-the-park vibe performance, with its sections of greenery, lush flowers, and the handsome church itself. But sadly, while the space is certainly used to its full potential here, the rest of the production struggles to keep up.
The cast and director Daniel Winder embrace the space in playful, engaging ways, which often brings out components of the play’s text that are usually less emphasized. Prospero speaks lovingly of the library he frequented back in Milan, and comforts himself with the loss of Miranda to love by disappearing into his cell with a book. Miranda’s speech to Caliban makes it abundantly clear that she had taught him language out of a genuine desire to civilize the savage, but that he is ungrateful for what she had so kindly offered him. Caliban’s assurances (“Be not afeared, the isle is full of noise”), beautifully delivered by Prince Plockey as he looks around the garden, give us the image of a man living on an island that he loves dearly, but that is being robbed from him.
Treating the garden as the island, and casting the audience as inhabitants, wandering about as they watch the story unfold, helps to convey the shipwrecked survivors sense of isolation. The promenade-based dramaturgy also allows a wonderful opportunity for the production’s designers: Mike Leopold’s set gives us sections of the island, including Prospero’s cave, which includes a winding staircase entangled in vines and flowers, and a dais with stone archways. Prospero’s cell reaches right up to a beech tree rustling gently in the summer air, perfect for Prospero to hang his robe.
Lighting designer Benjamin Polya has made a beautiful masque in the church, with a mysterious ambient haze and pastels which evoke a sense of joy and other-worldliness. And Filipe Gomes’ sound design blends tweeting birds and sounds of gently running water with the flapping of pigeons overhead and chatter that carries from outside, integrating Prospero’s world into ours.
The range in acting however, makes it difficult to read the production’s overall tone. Outdoor Shakespeare can range from pantomime-y and playful, to internationally acclaimed, and this production seems to be aiming at both. Jamie Newall’s Prospero is oddly stiff and static, and his relationship with Miranda is difficult to believe. Joanne Thomson juggles doubling the roles of Gonzalo and Miranda well enough, but as Miranda she often verges on over-acting with little nuance, particularly in the play’s opening scenes.
Paul Brendan as Trinculo and Reginald Edwards as Stephano are a great comedic duo, with plenty of song and slapstick drunkenness, but their doubled roles of Alonso and Sebastian respectively are surprisingly flat. Prince Plockey’s Caliban is excellent for his sincerity and naivety. Charlotte Christensen’s Ariel has a beautiful voice, and her twitchy movement is hypnotising, although the childlikeness with which she plays the role sometimes begins to veer into the same energy as Thomson’s Miranda.
I am glad to find theatre that can feed my nostalgia of small theatrical performances in green spaces. Iris Theatre’s The Tempest is a fun night out, especially if you’re willing to be taken along for the ride, bumps and all.
The Tempest is at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, until July 28th. For more details, click here.