A timeline of video clips from 1939 to a projected 2020 scenario provide a newly-invented background to the play which finds Prospero and Miranda on an island rebranded as ‘a deserted migrant camp.’
The aims of this joint venture between Untold Theatre and Yellowbelly Theatre in recognition of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death are entirely laudable. The play is ‘set against a backdrop of mass migration and political corruption’ with ‘fragments of verbatim journalism and striking digital projections’ which introduce and punctuate the play. A timeline of video clips from 1939 to a projected 2020 scenario provide a newly-invented background to the play which finds Prospero and Miranda on an island rebranded as ‘a deserted migrant camp.’ Along with attributed themes of ‘political unrest, racial division and ownership of land’, that is the link between the original play and this production which is ‘in response to the current migrant crisis’. It leaves an uncomfortable situation of being critical of the production while praising the intention. As the companies explain, ‘ We don’t have unlimited wealth or power to help people, so we chose to contribute our work.’
The five-strong cast each takes on two roles. With a three/two male/female split the decision to cast Prospero as female and change most of the gender-specific parts of the text accordingly seemed unnecessary and confusing without adding anything by way of new insight. Miranda remained female in both character and reality. This might have led to some particularly soft and endearing mother/daughter exchanges, if that is not being too stereotypical. Instead, both Aimee Kember (Prospero) and Jess Levinson-Young (Miranda) shouted vehemently at each other throughout most of the dialogues in an oddly angry interpretation of the text. Somehow they both managed to be more subdued and accessible as the drunken, jesting Trinculo and usurping Antonio respectively.
Missing from the cast list, for good reason, was the spirit Ariel, who is always an opportunity for creative and imaginative portrayal, and one not missed by director Will Hobby. Initially and ultimately the harpy was played as a chorus with lines spoken in unison or divided between members with the flighty movements suggested by hand-held blue lights. There was an appropriate air of enchantment and mystery in this device. A second, related portrayal as a projected plasma with recorded text also worked effectively, but suggested that one representation or the other throughout would have been preferable.
As Ariel manoeuvres the characters so more is revealed about them. Matt Penson plays a delightfully innocent, sensitive and enamoured Ferdinand in contrast to his scheming role as Sebastian. Similarly, Joseph Rynhart’s Gonzalo is practical and understanding while his Stephano adds humour and inebriated entertainment, albeit with a highly affected and perhaps somewhat irritating fey voice. The cast’s ability to delineate characters continues with two fine interpretations from Will Hobby. He well conveys the anguish of the troubled and distressed Alonso, but it is as Caliban that he steals the stage, giving full vent to all the bitter excesses of the role.
The strive for meaning and characterisation in these performances often unnecessarily leads to a loss of the delightful poetry contained in Shakespeare’s late work; it demands more sensitivity and modulations of voice than was generally forthcoming. Overall, the play and the screening of contemporary issues seem to run in parallel rather than as an integrated piece, but undoubtedly the production heightens awareness of the plight of migrants and has given financial help. Before the last night, retiring collections had already raised £1500 for Doctors without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) and that alone is rewarding for everyone.