On the 400th anniversary of The Tempest’s reputed birth, productions abound, not least the Trevor Nunn/Ralph Fiennes interpretation packing audiences into the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Jericho House’s production has no such big-name razzmatazz but arrives with sizeable ambitions following a short tour of the Middle East, where it played to both Palestinian and Israeli audiences in Jerusalem, Bethlehem Nablus and Haifa. With the Barbican’s support, it now pitches up at St Giles’ Cripplegate, a sturdy stone-built church that might have been familiar to Shakespeare himself.
For their atmospheric production, the company have researched lutist Robert Johnson’s music and Shakespeare’s original intention to place sound at the fore. From the pulverising opening shipwreck scene onwards, their interpretative soundtrack is like a film score – and all but unrelenting. Throughout the ensuing interval-free two hours, musicians stalk the aisles tootling and thumping while a cacophony of sounds howl in and whoosh out from every direction. This is theatre in 3-D; some might even call it ‘visceral’.
The hard-working cast – with several characters doubled up – make use of the nave and scaffolded columns, these replete with colourful designs, as well as the central section of the performance space in front of the altar, which is lit by innumerable lamps and lanterns of all manner of design, period and shape. Underlining this sensory bombardment is a dizzying assortment of costume styles; this is not a production that wants to be pinned down to a particular place, time or style. Director Jonathan Holmes, something of a site-specific specialist, acknowledges that “this is very much a 2011 production”. So it is.
But it is also a production with some problems, at least in this space. Churches were designed so everyone present could clearly hear calm, measured tones of authority delivered from on high. Actors racing through lines while running around the room as sound effects pummel from every side means not only that lines are often unintelligible, but that the meaning of whole scenes can be lost. If the intention was to disorientate, it was achieved; anyone unfamiliar with the play could be forgiven for feeling quite lost at times. Conversely, beyond the flashpoint scenes, the echoey acoustics and religious architecture seem to have contrived to deaden the pace, and much of the movement is painfully slow.
As Ariel, Ruth Lass charmingly sings songs in a Middle Eastern fashion in between shrieking like a banshee and chattering excitedly, and is the dynamo from which the production draws energy. Her harpy scene is visually stunning and is one moment when staging this production in a church begins to make theatrical sense. But the evil Caliban’s role is diminished by cuts to the text – which also put paid completely to the character of Gonzalo – rendering Nabil Stuart’s scenes almost incidental.
Amidst the cacophony Alan Cox, as a relatively youthful Prospero, is a model of technique. His voice and speaking tempo seem modulated to suit the performance space, and with his Anglican robe he looks every bit the Church of England vicar. He neither brays nor hurries his lines; in consequence he is easiest to hear. But he lacks the necessary gravitas for the role, and instead of being involved intimately with the fortunes of the other characters, he often seems to be narrating links between scenes from the sidelines, even as he stands centre stage. Perhaps this Prospero’s good magic is the work of a laissez-faire god.
This Tempest‘s bold attempts to connect the colonial adventures and religious debates of Shakespeare’s time to the ongoing Israel/Palestine situation do not entirely convince, even if they do provoke thought. For all its faults, it looks good, and engages.