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An Almost Perfect Storm

Lillie Hochwender

The Tempest poster

The Tempest
By William Shakespeare
Dir. Phelim McDermott
Oxford Playhouse
14 – 24 October

If you should find yourself with money burning a hole in your pocket, I highly recommend taking in the Oxford Playhouse’s production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, directed by Phelim McDermott. Although even tickets with a student discount are ¬£20, they are well worth the price for a night of enchanting and surreal theatre.

The play is a masterpiece of stagecraft and costuming. The island is made of undulating piles of laundry, so the two elements often seem one and the same. Characters are dressed in plastic shopping bags, woven neckties, Elizabethan doublets, and everything in between. Collared shirts become the sails of a doomed Italian ship, and yellow trousers the rays of a sun. This magical and ethereal isle finds its counterpart in the melodic tones of Brendan Murphy’s music, which seem to bring the set to life, literally. As he plays drums and a set of tuned glasses, actors don’t enter the stage or exit it; instead they seem to emerge from and melt into the clothing dunes.

The Italian courtiers, dressed from head to toe in quilted white fabric, resemble finely pressed hotel linens and stand out in stark contrast against the parti-coloured fabric hills. Gonzalo remarks, amazed, that their “garments are now as fresh as when we put them on first in Afric,” unmarked by the sea. Yet the white-clad Europeans seem out of place on the island. Prospero wears a Burberry trench for trousers and his daughter Miranda wears a blouse fashioned from blue neck-ties, but both of them seem to blend in. Prospero’s servant Caliban is dressed in yellowy-green rags, making him appear almost fungal in nature.

These curious costume choices separate the alien Italians from Prospero’s clan and from Caliban, the island’s native son. Although this production never delivers a direct commentary on colonialism, it doesn’t create the ethnic divide that is often played up. For example, a production of The Tempest at the Old Vic several years ago, directed by critically acclaimed director Sam Mendes, insisted on Caliban being its only black character. When I asked the actors about their possible consideration of colonialism in a post-show Q&A, the answers I received were intriguing. Jade Ogugua, who plays Miranda, tells me that she brought up the play’s history during one of the cast’s daily gatherings, but the topic was quickly put to rest. Meanwhile, Tyrone Huggins (Prospero) tells me, “I don’t know the history of the play. I don’t know the semiotics. And honestly I’m not that interested. I care about it as a play.”

Of course, this brings us at long last to the acting itself. One of the most interesting things I learned at the Q&A is that every night the cast is given a different word telling them how to behave (loving, forgiving, angry) which then impacts how they perform the show for that evening’s particular audience. The results of what some might call a risky move are often satisfying, both for the actors and the audience, as the performance stays fresh. However, other moments feel awkward – for example, the romantic tension that builds between Prospero and Ariel in Wednesday night’s production. Other nights have seen them more like a father-daughter duet. Some of the actors, particularly the Italian nobles and their drunken sailing crew, are decently enjoyable, yet not particularly memorable, much like their crisp hotel-linen doublets. Meanwhile, Ariel (Eileen Walsh) is not the airy, pale Tilda Swinton-esque androgyne that modern Tempests have come to promise. Instead, Walsh’s clear alto voice, tie-dye-dipped costume, and moments of menace create a refreshing and satisfying alternative. The other obvious stars for this shining show are Ogugua’s Miranda, feisty and fiercely optimistic; and Prospero, whose voice undulates between enchanting storyteller and tyrant.

Between the magical set, dynamic cast, and enchanting music, this production of The Tempest is well worth a watch, even if some of its kinks don’t come out in the wash.

Lillie Hochwender is currently reading for her English undergraduate degree at Regent’s Park College.