Kate Maltby

The Sea, the Sea

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Sea-storms seem to be buffeting London theatre at the moment, and I’m not just talking about Trevor Nunn’s sugar-saturated Tempest. Down at the Southwark Playhouse, Edinburgh Fringe hit Bound blows into London after a worldwide tour, while at St Giles Cripplegate, in the Barbican complex, you’ll find a darker, sacral The Tempest just back from its premiere in a West Bank refugee camp.

The winner of multiple awards at Edinburgh 2010, including a Fringe First and National Student Drama Awards, Bound reaches into the heart of what men will do in times of economic desperation. It’s also a peek into the life of a traditional fishing community, a frequently overlooked bulwark of our island history.

But while we learn plenty about the salty streets of Brixham, Devon, we never see them or the fishing-widows who populate them: instead, the action takes place in the claustrophobic atmosphere of an oily, creaking fishing trawler as six men are forced into ever more dangerous courses in a desperate attempt to find a catch.

In the outside world, the price of fish only keeps falling, and everyone’s trying to keep ahead of the quotas and changing migrant labour patterns. Inside, tempers flare and century old feuds surface. It’s a heart-stopping piece. An absolute must-see.

Bound is writer-director Jesse Briton's first play, but most of the time it feels like the work of an adept old hand. It’s as tautly crafted as you’ll find: the opening camaraderie and squabbles lightly building to a fierce climax, the atmosphere punctuated by echoing sea-shanties and mouthy one-liners.

This is a play that takes you by surprise: I’d heard it was emotionally fraught, but after the gentle opening scenes I never expect to find myself adopting the unprofessional, non-critical pose of hugging my legs, rocking back and forward and trying not to hyperventilate in the front row.

There are, though, moments when Briton’s inexperience as a playwright shows. The relationship between the skipper and his closest colleague is played out in soap opera quality revelations, lacking the dexterous banter and gamesmanship that Briton uses to illuminate the relationships below deck.

But the success of Bear Trap’s production isn’t just down to a sharp script: there are milestone performances from Joe Darke as the ship’s young braggart and Tom Bennett as the Polish hired hand, while much stage magic is created using billowing yellow sou’westers, swinging light bulbs and simply physicality. I left determined to see what this young company will do next, and even more keen to find someone who can teach me some traditional Devon sea-shanties.

Meanwhile, in the ancient holy space of St Giles Cripplegate, a different type of sea magic is being cast by Jericho House’s heavily slashed adaptation of The Tempest. At the Aida refugee camp, the production played to raucous, peripatetic audiences in the tradition of Shakespeare’s open air Globe. Here, director Jonathan Holmes appropriates a space that has seen centuries of Christian ritual, right at the mercantile core of the City of London, to create for the play’s island setting a sense of cold intimacy, seismic judgment and fragile, sacred beauty.

Prospero’s internal struggle to forgive his enemies is made universal by the multicultural array of glittering lamps that dangle from the ceiling: Aladdin lamps jostling against Tibetan lanterns, throwing shadows around the stone church as they flicker with every crash of the sea-storm. The colonized island becomes any occupied or disputed territory, the unsubtle posters of graffiti and street art making the relevance to Palestine clear.

This is where the transfer of the production to the St Giles’ space begins to feel slipshod and superficial. Prospero’s rituals at the high altar belong to a completely disconnected aesthetic from the homemade protest vibe of the placards hastily slapped up against the church walls.

And although his work, in its full context, has plenty more going for it, Mahmoud Darwish’s slogan ‘if the olives trees knew who planted them, their oil would become tears’, seems trite and lazy when daubed across a cardboard backdrop to Shakespeare’s greatest speeches about colonization and reconciliation.

That said, you’d be forgiven for wondering why Shakespeare’s language seems so anti-poetic in this interpretation. Holmes has, understandably, endeavored to simplify the poetry for a Palestinian audience, and cut the play to a manageable taster-size for Shakespeare newcomers and novice English-speakers.

This would be fair enough, if all the choices actually simplified the language, rather than inexplicitly mauled it: in just one instance, describing his brother’s decision to usurp, the original Prospero laments: ‘of temporal royalties he thinks me now incapable’. Here, bizarrely, Alan Cox’s lackluster Prospero substitutes ‘of temporal royalties he thinks me forever incapable’.

‘Forever’ instead of ‘now’ adds two syllables to the line, jarring the rhythmic flow but adding little clarity whatsoever – and there are plenty of more such incidents throughout the production. When Katharine’s William’s exquisite lighting design lends unadulterated beauty to this performance, it’s a shame that the play is dulled by such muddy language.

More impressive is the decision to double the casting of Prospero’s treacherous brother, Antonio, and his sidekick, Sebastian, with the equally grasping, would-be Kings, the drunken royal servants, Stephano and Trinculo. Holmes clearly has a deep understanding of the mechanics of this play, in which every character is haunted by alter egos and doppelgängers.

When we see Ferdinand briefly enslaved by Prospero, supposedly to test the virtue of desire for Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, he is reduced to chopping wood in the shadow of Prospero’s other slave, the native Caliban. The two suitors – one a rapist, the other marriage material – mirror each other closely. In Holmes’ far-sighted production, it’s a magical moment.

But there’s less justification for Holmes’ decision to transform Antonio (and therefore, thanks to doubling, Stephano) into Antonia / Stephanie. Nathalie Armin handles the challenge admirably, channeling Stephanie as a boozy ladette, but even with the text twisted beyond recognition, it fails to absorb the gender change.

Stephano, in Shakespeare’s play, is another of these sexual aggressors in pursuit of Miranda. Though Holmes cuts Stephano’s explicit threat to rape, impregnate and forcibly marry the heiress to the island estate, he still leaves Armin juggling with the awkward fantasy that ‘his daughter and I will be Queens of the island’. It also kills the homoerotic undertones between each pair of male conspirators. The deletion of Gonzalo, the King’s aged counselor and conscience, is just as problematic.

In plot terms, the lack of any royal guard makes it makes it less plausible that Antonio and Sebastian abandon their attempts on the King’s life, while the Holmes’ decision to assign Gonzalo’s lines to Antonio means that the utopian fantasy, the play’s most idealistic vision, is now expressed through the lips of the play’s greatest villain.

Sebastian Fewell is an impressive Trinculo, and he makes a great double act with Armin, but the production’s desperate attempts to condense characters and text makes even the better doubling decisions feel like they’ve been made just to avoid shelling out for the cost of another actor.

Such cost-cutting measures don’t seem to have limited the choice of musicians. The Tempest is Shakespeare’s most musical play, and after the elevator music that peppered Trevor Nunn’s recent production, it’s a delight to find a production that takes the play’s island sound-scape seriously.

Inspired by the surviving records of Shakespeare’s musical collaborator, Robert Johnson, Jessica Dannheisser’s music nimbly enhances the sanctified aesthetic, infusing this Tempest with Indian and Middle Eastern flute music. The ethereal touch is exemplified in the interplay between Ruth Lass’ wirey, quivering, Ariel and Rachel Lynes’ lightly tripping Miranda.

In Lynes, we have the rare glimpse of a Miranda both wild and courtly, hovering in the branches of trees with the same ease as the airy spirit who serves her father. It’s just a shame that much of the production, thanks to a wooden protagonist and leaden textual adaptation, stays earthbound.

Written byKate Maltby

Kate Maltby writes about the intersection of culture, politics and history. She is a theatre critic for The Times and is conducting academic research on the intellectual life of Elizabeth I.

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