The Tempest (ASC Theatre Camp) @ The Blackfriars Playhouse

Amid a packed weekend at the ASC, the Renaissance Season of the annual ASC Theatre Camp reached its climax with a lovely production of The Tempest. This session is devoted to the more experienced campers, who not only performed the show but directed it as an ensemble, cut the script, costumed and scored it, and ran all else (with support) by themselves. It’s an intensive training in the ASC ethos, and paid off with some fascinating and surprising decisions.

Central to this production’s innovation was the splitting of Prospero into two. To the sound of the company singing ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’, led by a melancholy Miranda (Sakura Rosenthal), Prospero (Lucy Shea) emerged with staff, and then dressed another Prospero (Maddie Johns), who awoke as a counterpart or doppelganger. The two Prosperos then worked as a pair on the island, their personalities overlapping but distinct: Johns’s smiling, beneficent Prospero seemed to look positively forward to the future, while Shea’s more troubled Prospero seemed more tied to the past, taking the lead on condemning past betrayals. The primary effect was to reimagine Prospero as a split figure, constantly in conversation with himself, though doubly formidable when the two aligned in order to, for instance, shut down Ferdinand (Molly Livesay).

The splitting of Prospero’s singular authority led to a fascinating dispersal of agency, with other characters seeming to try to step into the potential free space between the two. Lee Adams’s puckish Ariel – all trash punk, with frilled skirt, bright blue eye make-up and elongated lips giving them an uncanny grin – had little truck with authority; when Miranda failed to heed the Prosperos’ story, it was because Ariel was poking her and the two were giggling together. Ariel and Miranda worked together as occasionally petulant teens, with Ariel’s ‘duh’ response to Prospero asking them what more they could want (‘My liberty?!’) undermining the hierarchical relationship. Also keen to challenge authority was Ferdinand, in one of the best comic sequences of the show. The clean-cut Ferdinand immediately held himself as a king and refused to back down in front of the two Prosperos. As the Prosperos used their staff to first buckle Ferdinand’s knee, then make his sword heavy and spin it away from him, then relieve him of all muscle strength, Ferdinand kept fighting, putting up his fists when left with sword, and only finally giving up when sprawled on his back.

The romance of Miranda and Ferdinand was essential to the healing of this fractured Prospero, to the point that the Prosperos merely watched and played music during the couple’s wooing scene. This was especially sweet; having had an especially awkward meet-cute earlier (Rosenthal brilliantly showing that Miranda had not a clue what to do with her hands), here Ferdinand confidently taught Miranda to dance, and the two finally began exchanging kisses, before having a completely flummoxed parting with neither knowing which way to go. The winsome romance gave a powerful hook, and the Blackfriars Playhouse an excellent setting for the masque (led by Gabriel Laurent’s energetic Iris and backed up harmoniously from the balcony with Pax Skaggs as Ceres and Devlin Ford as Juno), with the couple able to go and sit on the bench in front of the first row of the audience to watch as the Prosperos co-ordinated the masque for their benefit.

This image of the consolidation of authority in a healing vein was counterposed with the disruptive rebellions elsewhere. Caliban (Isabella Pizzitola) was clean-cut, caped like the little kid from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, with just a bit of green make-up and an apparent stench to distinguish the character’s ‘monstrosity’. Andrew Poma’s douchey Stephano and Fenrir Palmer’s fed-up Trinculo made for a loud, crass pair against which Caliban’s intuitive responses to the island felt even noble. At the production’s close, it was notable that the Prosperos gave Caliban their book, and as Caliban led the clowns off-stage, there was a sense that knowledge was being entrusted to the only person capable of using it.

The nobles’ plot, meanwhile, stressed the threat posed by civilisation, with Hannah ‘Alex’ Feig and Ella Gardner taking a lengthy time as Antonio and Sebastian over their murder plan, Antonio slowly bringing Sebastian around. The choice to play this sequence seriously and slowly worked especially well, exaggerating the scale of the threat to Analise Toone’s Alonso and Daniel Skinner’s Gonzalo, until Gonzalo’s snort exploded the tension and caused Sebastian to bottle it at the last moment. The seriousness also allowed Ariel’s mischievous interventions to work against something concrete, with their scream of ‘WAKE UP!’ finally prompting the sleeping nobles to struggle to their feet.

As the disparate plots came back together, the splitting of Prospero really came into its own as an interpretive choice, giving a solid focus to the reconciliations and reckonings. The two confronted one another and agreed to renounce their magic. Johns’s calmer, forward-looking Prospero took on the mantle to return to Milan while Shea’s Prospero held her garments. It was Johns who initially greeted the returning nobles, with Shea taking a few extra moments before turning to join the counterpart. Underpinning this was a sense of traumas that cannot be easily healed, and a moving reflection on how ready one can be to forgive. In a beautiful moment of conclusion, Ariel gave a whoop as they were freed, taking Prospero’s staff and leaving via the Playhouse – but stopped at the back of the audience and beckoned. With Johns’s blessing, Shea’s Prospero turned and ran to join Ariel. In this version, there was no complete healing for Prospero, but a reconciliation – part of Prospero would stay with Ariel and be free, the other part would return to society having settled scores. And true to that spirit, while Johns’s Prospero began the Epilogue, the rest of the company returned to share it, asking for collective pardon, freedom for all.

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