at the Swan Theatre, Saturday 19th March 2011
Why is it that shows aimed at children are often the most enjoyable? Tell Tale at the National Student Drama Festival last year was an exciting new look at Kipling’s Just So Stories and the RSC’s recent Matilda impressed adults just as much as the kids they brought with them. Little Angel Theatre’s new production of The Tempest at the Swan Theatre suggests an answer; plays for children are not afraid of being playful, using objects and techniques which would usually be seen as too risky for a full-scale production, and in the process tease out aspects of a script which are not normally on show.
The production begins and ends with the entrance of a group of seagulls, soaring over the audience and settling on the simple wooden wave set at the back of the stage, taking us immediately to a desert island. Throughout the feeling of playfulness is kept; beautifully crafted puppets play Ariel, Caliban and a menagerie of other creatures, each manipulated with care by the team of puppeteers, who double as the cast. Peter Glanville’s direction includes some mesmerizing moments, such as the love scene between Miranda and Ferdinand, injecting back into the play the magic so often lost in performance.
The portrayal of Ariel and Caliban as a tiny nymph and grotesque monster respectively could be questioned, but in a production tailored to children this can be overlooked; they need to seem alien to children so that their ostracism is more pronounced. In any case, they are each shown to be cuddly and vulnerable, allowing us to empathise with them. Indeed the decision to play these parts as puppets draws out the fantastical elements of the play, making into more of a fairytale than a bittersweet comedy.
The production slightly falls behind, however, in its performances. David Fielder’s Prospero is fatherly and calm, and is countered subtly by Anneika Rose’s Miranda. The company of men, however, is less strong; Christopher Staines seems far too old to be playing Ferdinand, while Brett Brown and Ruth Calkin as Stephano and Trinculo never seem to have enough chemistry to allow us to go on their journey with them. Perhaps this is a result of the editing, which takes focus away from the Italians, but there is still enough text for the actors to play with.
The design makes a case for not simply sticking to conventional techniques when making theatre. The set and costume, designed by Laura McEwen, make good use of the space, and through suggestive imagery show us what is there. Lyndie Wright’s puppets all retain elements of humanity, and are lit beautifully by David Duffy. Ben Glasstone’s music furthers the sense of fantasy. A perfect example of all the elements of design coming together is in the initial storm scene, which begins with Prospero striking his staff around the wooden waves to create the sound of billowing thunder, and ends after much strobing with the destruction of a miniature ship.
Although this production primarily caters for children, there are aspects which will appeal to all ages. Granted, the poetry is sometimes dumbed down, but in fact this sometimes enhances our understanding of the text. Simple ideas such as the enactment of the previous schism with chess pieces and representation of Ariel’s imprisonment explain back stories without ever condescending. Which begs the question; why don’t ‘adult’ plays do the same thing?