Storms were scheduled for the matinee of Nottingham Playhouse and Lakeside Arts Centre’s outdoor Tempest, a co-production aimed at reintroducing family audiences to outdoor theatre as part of both venues’ reopening strategy; however, the sun shone brightly throughout. Martin Berry’s 80-minute production (also The Bardathon’s first bit of in-person Shakespeare for well over a year) took full advantage of the opportunities to capitalise on the experience of being in a shared audience once again, smoothing over the play’s darker issues to offer a family-friendly take that took sincerely Prospero’s line that ‘the rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance’.
The four-person cast took advantage of the lack of an actual thunderstorm to call on the children in the audience to create the tempest with whirly tubes and ratchets, Prospero (Charlotte East) beating time on a cajon and raising and lowering her arms to guide the audience through the rise and fall of the storm. The rest of the cast shouted at the storm from Erin Fleming’s set, a simple jetty-like platform backed by a trellis screen, with an opening that enabled repeated re-entrances as the cast switched between their different roles.
The self-consciousness of performed identity was key both to this play’s sense of metatheatrical fun, and to the broader thematic interests of the play in mirrored identities. By having all the actors double as several characters, the play’s traditional power centres were destabilised, and even Prospero herself could be mocked for taking too long to transform from/to Stephano. Further, all of the cast played Ariel – the change marked by simply donning a pair of sunglasses – spreading the labour of the sprite among the company.
The play’s mirrored identities worked subtly to reinforce the play’s own patterns of labour. Edward Watchman’s Caliban appeared in his second scene hefting a large log; later, Watchman reappeared as Ferdinand, stumbling along the same route as he took on Caliban’s work (though here to more comic effect, as he failed to pick up the large logs and celebrated heaving a smaller one). Prospero herself became Ariel when listening in on the conspiracy, interrupting the attempt on Alonso’s life before going back to report the incident to herself.
The most surprising mirrored identity was that of Peter Watts, whose Trinculo and Antonio both commented metatheatrically on the difficulty of making themselves understood to the idiots around them, turning the two into a surprising comic pairing. As Antonio, Watts worked his way patiently through Shakespeare’s text while explaining to Watchman’s Sebastian how he might take advantage of Alonso’s (Josie White) sudden drowsiness; eventually, he got so fed up of Sebastian failing to pick up on his hints that he broke entirely away from Shakespeare and indulged in a long physical tirade in which he mimed Sebastian’s brutal murder of Alonso with gushings of blood, until Sebastian finally cottoned on. As Trinculo, the audience themselves became those who needed a helping hand, and Watts’s easy rapport with the audience was a highlight throughout as he asked for help working out where things were, asking if Caliban was alive under his netting, and led a super-soaker assault on the watching crowd.
The production made some significant cuts, predominantly to the political and artistic narratives: the masque was gone, Gonzalo was cut (Antonio, interestingly, took on some of his lines celebrating the isle), and only the first couple of lines of Caliban’s ‘Be not afeared’ remained; the scenes featuringthe nobles or Miranda and Ferdinand were also heavily trimmed. What remained – with the exception of the long back story of 1.2, which was spoken well but lacked invention, and slowed down the pace somewhat – emphasised the comedy. Trinculo thus became central to the production’s success. He pulled out a COVID mask to wear on his head as shelter against the storm, and used his red nose as a prosthesis to sniff out what was under the netting where Caliban was hidden, waiting until it was back on his own face before splutting at the stench. There was a little bit of comedy for the adults too, as Trinculo spoke his ‘Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows’ before locking eyes with a guy in the audience and noting ‘he knows what I’m talking about’, and Ferdinand substituting ‘Shakespeare!’ as a swear word as he dropped logs on his feet.
In all of this work, the play converted the labour that so often in productions of The Tempest is an entrance point to exploring slavery, colonial relations, abuses of power and surveillance, into the labour of creative play. By appealing to a co-creative spirit – as embodied in the cool of the shades-wearing Ariels (though the production didn’t shy away from Ariel’s remembered pain as Prospero threatened him, a moment of darkness that wasn’t revisited) – the production asked its audience to share in the joy of making theatre. From the explicit acknowledgement of the doublings, to the visible stage manager who cued up the pre-recorded music (by Joshua Goodman), to the co-option of the audience in sharing in Caliban’s battle-cry of ‘ban, ban, ca-Caliban’, the production repeatedly took pleasure in creating characters and sounds. This led to the final bit of magic as Prospero stood in the final scene and released the Ariels, who took off their sunglasses simultaneously to become Alonso, Sebastian and Antonio, who then stood in a state of forgiveness. Recalling Prospero’s own reminder to herself of the ‘rarer path’, the production finally turned its own exploration of forgiveness out to the audience as she asked to be set free, and then walked away.