The Tempest, Southwark Playhouse ★★½

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Shakespeare productions seem to come in batches. Last year one couldn’t move without bumping into a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, from the Globe to the RSC. The Tempest seems to be following the same course; the Donmar Warehouse’s all-female version has just closed in King’s Cross, while Simon Russell Beale is currently gaining plaudits for his Prospero in Stratford-upon-Avon, prior to the RSC production transferring to the Barbican this summer.

One of the most triumphant productions of The Dream last year was Southwark Playhouse, with an anarchic, stripped-down version. So a new small-cast production of The Tempest, to which the Playhouse now also plays host, has a great deal to live up to.

And initial impressions are promising. The entire piece, stripped down to a 90-minute duration, is driven by lively percussion, bringing a sense of atmosphere to an otherwise minimalist staging. Peter Caulfield’s Ariel climbs up what little set there is while dressed in a straitjacket, the most effective of designer Ele Slade’s costume choices.

Sadly, though, there is too little else to commend. Sarah Malin’s Prospero cannot muster the sense of command over Ariel and Caliban (Stanton Plummer-Cambridge) that the character requires, reducing the effectiveness of her scheme to shipwreck her brother and reclaim her rightful title of Duke of Milan. Even with several characters discarded as part of this production’s abridgement, having a cast of only five means that there is doubling and tripling of character roles.

And while Benjamin Cawley (Ferdinand) and Gemma Lawrence (Miranda) have fun also playing drunkards Stephano and Trinculo, having the same actors play different roles in each of The Tempest’s three main plot lines does little to help bring out the unique elements of each. Whereas a small-cast production of A Midsummer NIght’s Dream can use multiple roles to draw attention to the common themes within each plot strand, here it works more to muddle an already murky plot structure.

The resulting impression is of a piece that, in reducing the original play length, has reduced, rather than improved, the piece’s clarity and power. And for all this production’s atmospheric benefits, the result is less of a tempest and more of a mildly annoying squall.

Continues until January 28. southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

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