The Tempest

Mon 15th – Sat 27th August 2011

reviews

Pat Massey

at 11:10 on 28th Aug 2011

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These days, Shakespeare played straight is only slightly less laughable than Shakespeare authorship claims. Cue Hammerpuzzle, who promise to have had this play “literally smashed apart (with a hammer!)” Thanks for the hint, fellas. If their director's neat summation of the play's essence as “the capacity to wander” were an accurate indication, this would be an intelligent example of how to spruce up the Bard.

The additions to the text are excellent. Hammerpuzzle represents magic through music; even Miranda and Ferdinand's banquet is replaced by an original tune which, fifty years ago, could have spearheaded the folk revival. In all these songs the harmonies are complex and done justice, the consonants near-unison (big tick from all the singers reading, I'm sure). Keeping up pitch for an hour without a handy concert A is no mean feat. Moreover, the chorus prologue and epilogue I assume are attributable to Tamsin Kinnard are convincing Shakespearian pastiches, and lines like “How long before the gnawing ache to run away again?” actually enhance the original text by affirming the presence of a pathos the island shenanigans can dilute. A Bath Spa student one-upping Shakespeare: that's why I love the Fringe.

The real boon of this production is its winning cast. The incestuous broth of actors being educational directors and writers under the Hammerpuzzle umbrella, as laid out in the programme, suggests the kind of tight-knittedness which stirs the sentimentalist in me. Could be a nest of vipers, but the chemistry between these seven just-gone-graduates suggests otherwise. Jay Yip brings much to the charged atmosphere. The dual role of Stephano and Alonso requires huge changes of mood which he manages flawlessly. One a raucous geezer, the other morose and as adrift in the mind as on Earth: both as believable as the other.

In fact, most of the cast have dual roles. Each is made distinct, and allows for a final scene hearkening back, ironically, to Shakespeare's first play 'Comedy of Errors' as actors swap roles from line to line. Perhaps a necessity borne from cast size rather than a deliberate choice, but deserving of mention.

A nod also to Elizabeth Cummins. She makes Ariel eager-to-please to the point of childishness, but to my surprise this approach does not grate. An Ariel this carefree is as novel as Simon Russell Beale spitting in Prospero's face (dir. Sam Mendes). And to be novel is the aim of the Shakespeare game.

As a whole the play is as assured as I could expect from a cast of this experience on the home stretch of a Fringe run. Five star Shakespeare needs to upend the plot, frame a play from a different character: pull a Stoppard, in other words. Whilst not 'straight' in essence, the plot of this 'Tempest' remains unchanged. Really though, if you haven't encountered 'The Tempest' before and this turns up, you'll take the show and cast to heart.

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Xandra Burns

at 11:24 on 28th Aug 2011

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Hammerpuzzle Theatre Company’s version of The Tempest opens with one of many atmospheric original songs: mystical and thorough, the ensemble uses small percussion instruments to accompany their voices. This nearly a cappella, special effects-less vision captures the atmosphere of the storm, and according to the program and some blatant and melodramatic insertion of text spoken at the play’s end, the feeling of being lost. Unfortunately, the opening number sets a standard that is not maintained. There is stark contrast in quality between the scenes straight from Shakespeare’s text and the brilliantly choreographed and arranged musical segments.

Shakespeare’s The Tempest requires a strong Prospero; Victoria Akers simply does not fit the part, and the comical beard and hair, which, by the way, are different shades of grey and of completely different textures, only make matters worse. She seems to put more effort into acting like an old man, and barely succeeds at this let alone providing any depth for Prospero’s character specifically. The first time Prospero thuds his staff against the ground is effectively emphatic, but this repeated gesture becomes exhaustive and annoying.

Elizabeth Cummins as Ariel provides beautiful vocals, both as mystical background music and in a stunning solo accompanied by Sam Grogan (understudy Ferdinand/Antonio and director)’s acoustic guitar. However, despite her precise ensemble work, her acting as Ariel is limited to about two expressions.

Ben Britton’s Caliban is like a louder version of Smeagol, which only calls attention to the fact that the rest of the characters look like hobbits in their matching green hoods that they wear during the entire production.

Nonetheless, the ensemble deserves credit for their general coordination - the entire cast remains onstage for the entire production, and scene changes are quick, effective, and creative. The care put into these sections make the scenes themselves seem rushed and unplanned.

Costume accessories allow for effective character changes, but are noticeably amateur in quality, with some noticeably frayed edges and carelessly removed labels from store-bought scarves. For nearly all of the play Prospero stands in the corner with a distractingly shiny and empty journal that is supposed to serve as his book of magic.

Most of the cast members play two roles each, and their quick changes from one to another, particularly in the final act, are flawlessly performed. Tamsin Joanna Kennard provides comic contrast between Miranda and Gonzalo while still remaining committed to both characters. Jay Oliver Yip, perhaps the strongest actor in the cast, shifts smoothly between Stephano and Alonso; often it is his expressions and mannerisms that distinguish the different groups of characters he and his fellow ensemble members portray.

The final scene, in which the actors take advantage of the opportunity to switch roles many times, highlights their strengths, but this success comes far too late. Enjoy the spectacle of song and movement, but expect little clarity or direction from this production of The Tempest.

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