The Tempest, Churchill Gardens Salisbury

IT might be a nightmare to find yourself walking through the side of a massive wooden galleon into a landscape of plastic detritus and abandoned furniture – or it might be a journey of magic and enchantment. You’ll have to decide when you join the Tempest team in the beautiful Churchill Gardens for the opening event of this year’s Salisbury Festival.

Shakespeare’s play is well known as an “entry level” way into the works of the Bard. It’s not difficult to concentrate on the comedy and magic realism and ignore the darker aspects of the story, and that’s just what director Gareth Machin has done in this “community” production in which dozens of local people take part alongside a team of professional actors. Not only has the director taken huge liberties with the text – Prospero’s lengthy speech warning of intimacy between his daughter Miranda and her new beloved Ferdinand is reduced to “No tongues!” – but he had the brilliant idea of casting the entire community group in the role of Ariel, his ubiquitous sprite.

Apart from the colourful costumes, almost everything on the various performance stages around the riverside parkland has been made from rubbish, reclaimed and truly repurposed by the hardworking set dressers. And it does make you think!

Several of the main characters are played by actors whose careers started at Stage 65, the youth theatre company set up by David Horlock at the Playhouse. And it’s a proper homecoming. The audience, carrying chairs and picnics, starts the evening led from the car park to witness the shipwreck that starts the play, before the walk THROUGH the ship to Prospero’s island where the avuncular Robert Bowman cleverly introduces his daughter Miranda (Emma Lau) to the characters from his past.

As the tale of love and duplicity unfolds, music surrounds the action. There is even a moment for four troupes of street dancers to show their skills. Kate Edgar’s choirs contributed some fine singing, and the varied musical soundscapes reflected the performance sites. There could not have been a more perfect night for the opening, so the weather gods were clearly delighted with the endeavour, which all ends in a magical glade, lit by discarded plastic bags in the trees.

There are moments of great tenderness, and truly wicked plotting. Prospero’s moving reuniting with the King of Naples, Alonso (Lloyd Notice) and Miranda’s wonderment at Ferdinand (Samuel Tracy) were a delight. Elizabeth Crarer’s murderous Antonia echoed Lady Macbeth and David Partridge’s Caliban was a creature more sinned against than sinning. Matt Crosby’s hilarious Trinculo and Heather Phoenix’s Stephana nailed the broad comedy, and Georgina Stutton is the faithful Gonzala. The vast and totally committed community cast, which will vary from performance to performance, adds an insistent and magical element to the show

Puppets on long poles accompany the audience on its walk between the stages, made from rubbish like the rest of the props, and moulded into sea creatures and even a swan and her cygnets, straight from the neighbouring river. Wonderful!

If the edges of Shakespeare’s original are a bit blunted, the audience, many of whom had turned out to support their family members on stage, clearly enjoyed the whole, truly immersive, experience.

It’s on in the Churchill Gardens until 4th June.

Footnote: Some places have taken longer to emerge from the strictures of the pandemic than others, and poor Salisbury was still reeling from the 2018 Novichok effect when Covid struck, so perhaps it’s not surprising that signs of artistic life have been slow to re-appear. Gareth Machin was artistic director of Salisbury Playhouse (still mentioned on Wikipedia as “a producing theatre which produces between eight and ten plays a year, as well as welcoming touring productions”) before the “pan-arts, starchitect” organisation that is Wiltshire Creative came into flower. Let’s hope this brilliant Tempest is a good omen for the future of the “brand” that is Wiltshire Creative.

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