ISLAND OF WONDER AND UNEASE
One of the interesting, rewarding quirks in Tom Littler’s small-but-perfectly-formed Tempest is that Tam Williams doubles as Ferdinand, the ultra-virtuous shipwrecked Prince, and as a particularly farouche barebreasted Caliban — unrecognisable in a ragged white whole-head mask. Which is great for Williams, since Ferdinand is quite a dull part and Littler has, interestingly, directed Caliban as not only savage and resentfully dangerous but a creature existing in real and constant pain, fear and confusion. When Stephano the sottish butler gives him a drink, one is rather pleased for the poor monster. Given that Caliban is nowadays a problematic part – an indigenous islander taught and harshly disciplined by Prospero – this is extraordinarily effective, and Williams’ writhing rage gives it disconcerting reality. When Rachel Pickup’s splendidly vigorous Miranda confronts him over his rape attempt, the brief scene flies.
The other doublings are neat, and the “clown” parts in particular work well: Peter Bramhill a Yorkshire Trinculo, Richard Derrington a bowler hatted and I think Welsh butler. Whitney Kehinde’s Ariel is a Gauguin beauty, melodic, engaging, and again interestingly not (like some Ariels) cocky, but so cowed and eager to please that there is a nice edge of colonial unease there. “”Do you love me, master? No?”.
And as for Prospero himself, in this production which was a triumph of casting and hope before the pandemic hit it after six shows, he is no less than Michael Pennington. And classy as ever, despite the oddity that he is “on the book”, reading from it throughout. Which obviously reduces his eye contact with usand his physical moves. I was disconcerted by this aat first, but closing my eyes for a moment or two when he was alone onstage realized it didn’t matter: I was beguiled by his impeccable, deep-felt RSC delivery and thought it rather increased the dreamlike oddity of the whole play (the shipwrecked party are all in pajamas or dressing gowns). After all, Prospero speaks constantly of depending on his books, of learning, of his library (nicely evoked by sea-wave curved shelves in his cell). Maybe he is reading us the story, and we are children, captives of a fantasy.
It’s odd, and I’d like one day to see him an upright and authoritative Prospero, more dominant, thundering. But it’s a play I have loved all my life, and this bijou, quirky production has made me see new things in it. Result.
BOX OFFICE jermynstreettheatre.co.uk to 22 Dec