There’s a bit of a gap in Shakespearean performance criticism. Despite the quality and inventiveness of theatre for children all around the country, it falls beneath the notice of most reviewers, with the implication that it is considered not to be of substantial intellectual or creative merit. This is an enormous shame, as a viewing of Krazy Kat Theatre’s A Tempest emphatically proved.
Caroline Parker’s production, in collaboration with Nottingam Playhouse’s education department, was specifically designed for 8-11 year olds and particularly for those children who are deaf or hard of hearing. With a tagline of “Such signs as dreams are made on…”, A Tempest incorporated sign language into the action, resulting in a production which was strikingly visually stylised as performers simultaneously spoke and signed to one another in a mesmerising symphony of movement and words.
Nick Wood’s adaptation streamlined the play, focussing on the fundamentals of plot rather than character development. Thus, the scenes of the courtiers were stripped down to Antonio and Sebastian’s agreement to kill Alonso, followed immediately by the appearance of the banquet and Ariel. The masque and mariners were cut, and the remainder of the scenes trimmed down to their essentials, except in the case of the Caliban/Trinculo/Stephano scenes, where much of the physical comedy was retained. The result was to create a Tempest that found coherence in a series of almost dreamlike fragments, where action and images blended seamlessly into each other.
I’m not sure how easily a young audience would have followed, say, Prospero’s back-story or the political motivations of the plotters, but the highly visual and magically evocative approach rendered the words largely superfluous. Antonio and Sebastian were created through the donning of commedia dell’arte evil masks; Trinculo and Stephano lurched comically about the stage; and Alonso wore a crowned mask that set him apart as king. The stories were linked by Ariel, a blue-skinned and pointy-eared puppet in Eastern robes who was maneuvered by the actors, moving freely around the small circular stage to establish that the same magic bound the disparate groups of characters. This sober, and slightly scary-looking, puppet emphasised the severity of the magic; this was no carefree paradise, but a place of serious works, seriously undertaken by an agent of real magic.
A succession of simply-created but very effective images introduced the action; first Kinny Gardner’s Prospero was robed and given his staff and book, then the book was opened to reveal a blue cloth that expanded out to cover the stage, rippling and billowing as the noises of a storm built up. Darren Cheek’s Miranda appeared amid the ocean, holding a small paper boat which she desperately tried to keep afloat, before it was snatched from her by the other actors, thrown from hand to hand as she pleaded with Prospero for their safe-keeping. In response he grabbed the boat, then dunked it in a bucket of water, presenting the soggy mess to his dismayed daughter.
The play’s main focus stayed with Miranda and Jim Fish’s Ferdinand, as the two met and courted under Prospero’s watchful eye. There was plenty of humour to be found in these scenes: Ferdinand’s attempt to draw his sword resulted in him producing a bunch of flowers, and his amazement turned to pleasure as he presented them to Miranda. His arduous lugging of logs, too, was rendered comic as Miranda picked up several under a single arm. However, the humour gave way to surprising moments of tenderness as the two young lovers were finally allowed to touch. Their subsequent appearance playing chess behind a picture frame saw the two already good-naturedly laughing as they played and cheated at the game.
The final scene introduced an interesting reading of the text, bringing on stage Prospero, Miranda, Ferdinand and Tinca Leahy’s Alonso, with the other nobles represented by their masks laid on the stage floor. This staging greatly increased Alonso’s presence and status in the final scenes, emphasised by Prospero kneeling before the King as he asked – here, asked – for his dukedom, to be graciously granted the honour. Prospero’s revelation of the king’s lost son therefore became the subject’s favour to his sovereign. More than anyone else, I was reminded of Rosalind, with the ending engineered by a character of slightly lower rank for the benefit of his superior. This re-establishment of the monarch’s superiority, and Prospero’s deliberate choice to reconcile himself to the hierachy of Naples and Milan, was effective and fitted well with Prospero’s expressed desire to abjure his magic and return home.
Ariel shrunk as the production went on, from a child-sized puppet to a hand-sized puppet, and finally to a bundle of shiny ribbons, which Prospero caressed fondly as he said his goodbyes. In a rather startling moment, he then threw the ribbons to the floor, only for them to bounce high and off the stage as Ariel returned to the ether. The puppet was nicely countered by Fish’s Caliban, who emerged from a chest with clawed hands and fanged teeth, which Prospero tuttingly told him to remove before continuing with the scene. Fish’s growling island-monster was understandably and tactfully simplified, allowing him to act as the comic villain before Prospero’s thwarting of the mission, at which he underwent a change of heart and sought for grace. He was thus raised above the bumbling Stephano and Trinculo by his ability to recognise true authority and plead for pardon, achieving a state of grace denied the two servants.
At an hour long, with only four actors and a simple approach designed to appeal to children, it is perhaps understandable that this kind of children’s theatre slips beneath the notice of performance critics. This is, after all, ‘A’ Tempest rather than ‘The’ Tempest. However, it is a shame; Krazy Kat produced an interesting and entertainingly-performed reading of the play that appealed to its target audience and displayed far more wit and invention than a good many ‘adult’ productions. I would have loved to have seen a full house of schoolchildren enjoying this, as it seemed to me to be the ideal introduction to Shakespeare: accessible without compromise, and entertaining without condescension.
This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.