The Tempest, Frome Drama at the Merlin

promptfrometempFROME Drama Club’s radical reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest – one of the Bard’s “entry-level” plays – might have been just what the board of The Globe had in mind when they unceremoniously and controversially ousted Emma Rice in the early stages of her directorship.

Director Stephen Scammell, who memorably played McMurphy in Frome’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, set his Tempest in modern costume on an indeterminate island, against a backdrop of blood-smeared broken pilings,  a couple of useful rocks and a snow-storm of pages from books. Stunning lighting, which he and Matt Tipper designed, made for memorable visual images.

I should explain that not only did I study The Tempest for O Level, but have performed in it and seen it many, many times, from school versions to John Wood and Roger Allam’s venerated performances. So I know the play well.

I am not generally in favour of cut-and-paste Shakespeare other than in the context of revue or compendium, so the interjection of familiar speeches or phrases from other plays, or even modern words for comic effect, was more jarring than inspiring.

The director’s other big idea was switching genders, so that Prospero’s duplicitous sibling became a sister in a slinky dress, loyal courtier Gonzalo was a woman and Ariel was also female. It all made perfect sense.

The other idea was to always pronounce wreck (as in shipwreck) as rack\wrack, but I don’t know why. The programme notes were more explanatory of the social life of bees, of human relationships and manipulative control.

The Tempest is a play that can run from around two hours to more than three, and the Frome production was on the longer side. There were scenes of beautiful slowness and of frantic activity. Especially memorable was when Prospero called his former court back to him on the island where they were shipwrecked, when motion, light and sound conspired in a moment of  stunned shock.

It would be impossible to bring off this challenging production without fine acting. Led by the calmly powerful Alan Burgess as Prospero – totally audible from the entire auditorium with no raising of voice – they did a wonderful ensemble job.

Polly Lamb’s Ariel, with her early friendship with Lauren David’s Miranda, was a delight, singing as well as she moved and acted.  Tom Davies and Lauren David were a convincing pair of first-sight lovers, and Calum Grant put in another memorable FDC performance as the drunken Stephano. Richard Thomas’s Caliban avoided the sometimes caricature nature of the slave and Sue Ross was a coldly scheming Antonia.

I will not forget this Tempest in a hurry, as I look forward to Harriet Walter’s Donmar performance, of Prospero as a man, set in a woman’s prison.


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