Outdoor Shakespeare is part of the British summer experience: you take your chances, but the chances are the audience is more interested in the weather. Will it hold? Possibly. Should I bring a cagoule? Definitely. Will I be able to hear anything? Does it matter? Can we bring booze? Yes. Will there be toilets? Somewhere…
The challenge for a company like Red Rose Chain, who have performed Shakespeare Theatre In The Forest for over 15 years is all the above, but what is clear with this production is the conceptual desire to make the experience accessible without losing sight of what theatre can and should be: transformative and resonant. So, water, water is everywhere but we too find ourselves stranded on an Island that, littered with oil drums, resembles the Jungle at Calais more than an “Isle of Wonder”. This Enchanted Isle, tucked away in a woodland corner is much more of the earth. Here is a real world turned upside down through perilous journeys across the sea and forced exile.
There is definitely a whiff of transgression in the air. Ariel (Jack Parker) is masculine, muddy, dirty and smeared in green, whilst Prospero (Edward Day), no longer an old man, is androgynous and young. The patriarchal presence that makes this play feel so heavy sometimes is now disturbed and playful, not old and tired. The energy here feels liquid and light, less about finality and reflection, but more about five players playing, connecting through time as kings, slaves, traitors, friends and fools. Here the multi- roling becomes poignant and reflexive: Caliban is also King Alonso; Prospero doubles as the jester, Trinculo; Miranda as the loyal and ancient servant Gonzalo. It all fits together, like the books that beautifully become the birds of the Island in order to create a fleeting, dream like moment.
At under 2 hours, this is a lean adaptation by director Joanna Carrick enhanced and layered with sound design by Laura Norman. When Prospero talks of having “required heavenly music” he gets Nick Cave Song for Jesse. The theme tune from 70s off-grid in suburbia sitcom The Good Life signposts another comic episode as the washing line goes up. Like a film soundtrack, these punctuations add playful but fresh layers of meaning and the rest is made up through the direction and performances.
Caliban (Kirsty Thorpe) is furious and desperate. Not a figure of fun or hideous monster, Caliban clearly embodies the central moral question of the play- how are the oppressed supposed to behave exactly, especially after being so kindly civilized and controlled by the invaders? Ownership, enslavement and possession seem abstract and surreal concepts when the velvet gloves of power are off. It was a relief to see, then, such a spirited, physical and lusty Miranda (Rachel McCormick). Discarding her child self, in the form of a puppet-doll, she spars verbally and physically as an equal with Ferdinand. In Miranda, he had met more than his match and she was definitely winning.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect for me, however, was the comedy that came from the genuinely funny Trinculo and Stephano. Edward Day and Lawrence Russell are instinctive and skilled comic actors. The audience interaction and clowning notwithstanding, their timing and manipulation of the language and its rhythm were nuanced and clever. In fact, actually laughing out loud at Shakesperean comedy was a magical experience in itself for me. Normally the best that can be induced is the sort of forced tittering one usually reserves for weedy jokes made by the Royal Family.
The irreverence of the humour, splash zone, glo sticks and a dazzling, show stopping and soulful acapella version of It’s Raining Men all serve to re-imagine the play into a big experience for its local family audience. It is a hugely popular annual event in Ipswich that has become a well-supported institution in the best sense of the word. Simply put, this show provides the funds that are vital to the continuation of the inclusive work Red Rose Chain offers to young people and the wider community. Its activism is simple but powerful: through theatre and the arts lives can be transformed. With this production Red Rose Chain is a company that delivers on all counts.
The Tempest is on until 28th August 2016. Click here for more information.