“Come unto these yellow sands and then take hands”
Multiple productions of so many of Shakespeare’s works are never far away and in its 400th anniversary year, London has already seen The Tempest tackled at great length by Trevor Nunn and Ralph Fiennes at the Theatre Royal Haymarket and reimagined in the most effective and revelatory of ways by Cheek By Jowl’s Russian company at the Barbican. It is now the turn of Jericho House to make their mark on this play, also under the aegis of the Barbican but playing at the neighbouring church of St Giles Cripplegate. There’s double-casting, gender-swapping, even omission of one character and a clear infusion of Middle Eastern influence into the world of disputed territory and clashing cultures that is created inside St Giles’ – nominally “mid-way between Europe and the East”. This connection has been reinforced by a pre-London tour of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Haifa where the show has played to both Palestinian and Israeli audiences.
Given the truncated running time of 105 minutes straight through and the approach taken to the whole interpretation, this does at times come across as a rather different Tempest. Purists may baulk at Gonzalo’s non-appearance or the gender conversion to Antonia and Stephanie, but I enjoyed the playful aspect that was employed here and the doubling by Nathalie Armin and paired by Stephen Fewell as Sebastian and Trinculo, worked mostly well. Ruth Lass’ strident Ariel was superb, her haunting yelps stalking the invaders and Nabil Stuart made for a more ‘human’ Caliban who one feels for in being oppressed but whose role also feels somewhat reduced here. Cox’s Prospero was very well spoken but sometimes felt a little bit too much of a spectator, not fully invested in the events unfolding at his behest, especially concerning his daughter, an inquisitive Rachel Lynes matching well with Gabreen Khan’s Ferdinand.
This production uses a musical score inspired by lutist Robert Johnson, who wrote music for the original performance of The Tempest, which incorporates songs that were known to have been used in the show and other music by Johnson that is suggestive of how the rest of it might have sounded. Composer Jessica Dannheiser’s work here is exceptional, music playing almost throughout the show whether as backdrop or song –MD Emily Baines marshals instruments including lutes and recorders to create a lush soundscape whilst Ruth Lass’ Ariel’s melodies given a distinctly Eastern flavour. And it is here where the juxtaposition of sound and venue plays out beautifully: the striking sounds of Lass’ evocative singing against the atmosphere of this beautiful church creates a little magic, a space where specific religions don’t seem to quite matter so much as the simple feeling of just,well something greater.
There are moments that could do with greater clarity, where even knowledge of the play isn’t quite enough to fully anchor you, but what is gained in Jonathan Holmes’ production is an incalculable sense of atmosphere. Whether it is Lucy Wilkinson’s design with its canopy of nearly a hundred different lights, lamps and lanterns, or the evocative sound effects and glorious music that fills the church, this is a Tempest worth catching.