views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Tempest
The Hope Theatre
2nd July 2015


Marcus Houden and Ariel Harrison as Prospero and Ariel

Photography provided by Thick as Thieves

You don't have to know much about the complete works of Shakespeare to know that The Tempest is the one with the whopping big storm in it. Clue's in the name. Or that there are lots of different characters - the Bard was the pioneer of job creation, always writing in plenty of parts. In this staging of The Tempest, Thick as Thieves have cut the character list down ever so slightly to 11 (and Shakespeare wept) and shared out the roles between only four actors. This is a company with ambition and mostly importantly, the talent to match it.

Upon stepping into the theatre, we're greeted by thick vegetation and a sandy painted floor, with co-designers Laura Harling and Nicky Diss (also director) transforming the room into a veritable island paradise. The heat, although less of a stage effect and more due to the ridiculously hot weather in London at the moment, completes the tropical feel. The company hands out iced water, which not only makes the temperature bearable, but instantly and very easily forces you to interact with them. The Tempest isn't a piece of immersive theatre as such, but there's nonetheless something very personal about how Diss has approached it all. Shakespeare after all was never meant to be stuffy texts for academics and scholars: Diss very much wants to return his work to the people.

Costume changes - inevitably frequent due to the small cast - are handled quickly, without impacting on the pacing. Sometimes a character will shout lines from offstage whilst shrugging on a different shirt, and this deliberate lack of finesse adds to the intimacy of the performance. The protagonists quite happily sit in and among and even caress some of the audience, and Diss as Stephano at one point addresses the audience to check a fallen glass hasn't ended in disaster, without breaking character.

The speed of improvisation proves how adaptable the company are - indeed, they've worked in an unplanned interval as a comfort break for air, even though this wasn't part of their original artistic vision. Although we're quite happy with our cool drinks and mid-show meander outside, the performers are dressed in multiple layers, running around under bright stage lights, subject to the most unbearable heat. Droplets of sweat betray the fact that they're about five minutes away from passing out; the energy never falters, with the sheer professionalism to be commended.

There are plenty of fabulous little touches from Diss - spraying the front rows with water during the storm is both artistically smart and wonderfully refreshing if you get caught. Introducing the water into the air creates a humidity which makes us feel like we're part of the stricken ship, stimulating an extra sense. Using the space above the theatre doors as a hiding place for Ariel (Ariel Harrison) gives the impression of the magical creature peeking out from the top of a tree, watching the action unfold, and adding to her impish and playful delivery. There's also some hauntingly beautiful music from composer and musical director David Knight in the marriage scene.

In cutting this down to 90 minutes, Diss focuses on the drunken escapades of Trinuclo (Marcus Houden), Stephano (Diss) and Caliban (Thomas Judd) as well as the innocent love story between Miranda (Diss) and Ferdinand (Judd), much to the joy of Prospero (Houden). Given Ferdinand is the heir to the Neapolitan throne, his marriage to Prospero's daughter gets the usurped Duke back in political power, but the emphasis here is on Prospero's feelings of paternal happiness. The political strands to The Tempest have always been for me the least interesting, and Diss chooses not to dwell on them. The plot points remain, but the lengthy scenes are those full of comedy and romance.

Just as the name suggests, Thick as Thieves work closely to deliver a tight performance, with a natural camaraderie spilling over into their work. They're a real delight to watch - heatwave or no heatwave.

The Tempest ran from 30th June to 18th July 2015 at the Hope Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)

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