The Tempest

Photograph: Steve Gregson

The Tempest by William Shakespeare – Jermyn Street Theatre

The Jermyn Street Theatre is a tiny place to stage a play that is more usually seen filling all the space on offer at the RSC or the National Theatre , but the scale gives Tom Littler’s production of The Tempest particular meaning. The set, designed by Anett Black, is Prospero’s rather cosy cell, lined with desirable, wavy bookshelves. The fantastical happenings on the island seem conjured from his head to a greater degree than most productions and even, perhaps, take place only in his imagination. The part is played by Michael Pennington, whose performance is intriguing in several ways. He wrote, in his book ‘Sweet William’ about his reluctance to play the part, which he attributed to failing to fully understand Prospero. However, in the programme for this production he also discusses his concern that this is the final part a Shakespearean actor plays, after which there is no more. Pennington’s Prospero is stooped and elderly, trying to put his affairs in order and provide neat endings for all the loose ends in his life before it is too late. Pennington’s voice is remarkable, carrying all the power and cadence of a man used to bestriding the big stages. It is a treat to watch him so close up. His performances is all the more remarkable because he reads the part from a book, a very rare situation on stage. Presumably this is what he needs to do to be able to play the part and, to some extent, it fits the conceit that Prospero is directing events. It also adds to the vulnerability of his performance, and to the sense that Prospero is running out of time.

The rest of the cast are strong, with some enjoyable performances. Rachel Pickup’s Miranda and Tam William’s Ferdinand are both older than actors often cast in these roles, adding to the sense that Prospero’s grasp on time has eroded. Richard Derrington and Peter Bramble double, to great effect, as Antonio and Stephano, Sebastian and Trinculo, playing both ends of the social spectrum with relish. Derringtons’ Welsh Stephano is a particular pleasure. However, the driving force is Whitney Kehinde’s Ariel, who works very hard indeed for her master. Her movement style makes her seem alien, and her energy compensates for Prospero’s lack of it. She even performs the entire masque sequence herself, as three different characters in quick succession. The production is expertly managed and the tiny stage expands to fill the dimensions of an island, with only a painted sheet to change the scene. It provides an opportunity that should be missed to see a fine actor giving the performance he never thought he would.

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