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‘The Tempest’ review

  • Theatre, Shakespeare
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Gorgeous but slightly uneven promenade production of Shakespeare’s late magical classic

If there’s one thing Londoners can count on in summer, it’s open-air theatre. A lot of open-air theatre. But it’s one thing to watch a play under the stars, and another entirely to be immersed in a production that makes the most of an unconventional environment. It’s for this reason that Iris Theatre’s ‘The Tempest’ – brought to life in the lush gardens of St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden – is so much fun, despite its unevenness.

Partially, this is down to the promenade structure of Daniel Winder’s production of Shakespeare’s magical late play. Audiences are invited to follow the action through four locations – three in the garden, and one inside the church.

There’s no point in cringing when Jamie Newall’s magician Prospero first instructs audiences to ‘Go, follow!’ in a show filled with magic – including some fun sleight-of-hand involving floating recorders and disappearing food – surrendering to the conceit is compulsory.

Besides, the decision to keep things moving (literally) allows set designer Mike Leopold and lighting designer Benjamin Polya to flex their muscles. The visual aesthetic is heavily based on opulent seventeenth-century masques, which makes perfect sense given that Inigo Jones, St Paul’s architect, was a leading designer of these royal soirees. In the outdoor scenes, thick vines snake around multi-levelled set pieces that evoke ruined royal palaces. A soundscape of running water and birdsong (by Filipe Gomes) fills the space so naturally that it blends with the sounds of the garden. And when we enter the church in Act 4’s masque scene, coloured haze and overhead projections elevate the experience to its most ethereal.

The spell isn’t infallible, though. It doesn’t help that the actors need to compete with boisterous Covent Garden – often a losing battle. Without the promenade structure, and some nuanced directing from Winder, I’m not sure that the production could have maintained its vitality. Performances are hit and miss; the liveliest scenes involve light relief comedy characters Trinculo (Paul Brendan) and Stephano (Reginald Edwards) drinking and singing their way around the island that Prospero has shipwrecked them on. The very multi-talented Charlotte Christensen shines and shows off her operatic training as Prospero’s energetic, bird-like spirit Ariel, and watching her take on a menacing gravitas in the creepy banquet scene is thrilling.

But the way that the show deals with the two leads – Prospero (Newall) and his daughter Miranda (Joanne Thomson) – is a weak point. While Thomson veers into overacting, Newall doesn’t make much of an impression at all. Prospero is one of Shakespeare’s most complex and enigmatic characters; he’s a loving father, yet insufferably paternalistic, and he’s a forgiving ruler, yet a brutal coloniser and slave owner. There’s not much about Newall’s performance here that makes him likeable, but it’s also frustratingly difficult to be interested.

That said, it is a real treat to get join Iris Theatre on this adventure through one of the city’s most beautiful church gardens. Dress-up fans are invited to come in seventeenth-century masque garb, which would surely only make the experience more magical.  

Rose Johnstone
Written by
Rose Johnstone


£20, £15 concs. Runs 2hr 30min
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