Michael Pennington and Kirsty Bushell shine in a clever take on the The Tempest at the Jermyn Street Theatre
“Thy food shall be fresh-brook mussels”
It is not one of my favourite Shakespeare plays and so I rarely seek it out these days, but the prospect of seeing actors of the calibre of Michael Pennington and Kirsty Bushell in the intimacy of the Jermyn Street Theatre got me along to The Tempest there. It also helped that it was directed by Tom Littler, whose inventive reworking of All’s Well That Ends Well last year was its own little piece of magic.
Aging Prospero upwards a little has a distinct impact on the tenor of the play. From the opening scene where he wreaks stormy havoc with a touch of malevolence via a toy boat to the air of almost-relieved resignation that comes at the close, there’s a palpable sense of the prospect of vengeance having fired him on in later years yet Pennington balances brutality with benevolence throughout, suggesting perhaps it was closure rather than revenge that was actually his driving force.
Bushell is also impressive as Miranda, though cut from an entirely different cloth as lifeforce emanates her like a glow. A tender daughter, if not carer, for a father she sees as ailing and a vibrant, curious partner for Ferdinand for whom she hides none of her ardour, despite his pyjamas. And I loved the detail of Neil Irish and Anett Black’s costumes with Miranda wearing one of Prospero’s old waistcoats.
Their set design is no less impressive, with its whorling dynamism and gauzy secrets, allowing Max Pappenheim’s music and sound design to bubble up with its strangeness. And there’s clever use of doubling, not just in the counterpointing of noble comedy and cruelty (Richard Derrington and Peter Bramhill) but in Tam Williams taking on both Ferdinand and a gimped-up brutalised Caliban (Prospero really isn’t all kind y’see).
Shifting to a lightly South Pacific-themed setting gently resets some of the colonialism that often accompanies contemporary productions of this play, whilst never denying the abuse that has happened here. Whitney Kehinde’s mellifluous Ariel has a restless energy that constantly pushes against the boundaries of her captivity, the liberation that finally comes is one that is felt by all.