The Tempest ~ Stafford Castle, Stafford Shakespeare Festival

The Tempest runs until 8 July 2017 – book tickets here: The Tempest Tickets

Star rating: *****

Following the triumph of last year’s production of Othello at Stafford Castle, the team have pulled off yet another masterpiece of a spectacle with their latest Shakespeare Festival offering, The Tempest. Produced by Derrick Gask and directed by Clare Prenton, a more magical evening with such an engaging take on the Shakespeare classic I could not have imagined. It gives the RSC’s production a run for its money, that’s for sure!

A brief synopsis: Prospero, Duke of Milan is usurped by his calculating brother, Antonio, aided in his mission by Prospero’s political enemies. Prospero and his five year old daughter, Miranda are marooned on an island as a result where survival seems unlikely. However, with the aid of a spirit, Ariel and Ariel’s son, Caliban – he and Miranda have lived on the island for twelve years. When an opportunity for Prospero to seek revenge upon his brother and his cohorts, he summons magic to help him in his conquest. It’s a stormy tale with plenty of highs, lows and a good deal of comedy – all of which are highlighted to perfection in this incarnation.

The set is a marvel, with the castle in the background, it is a wonder to behold, the staging is in effect quite simple, but the use of lighting and special effects enhances the scenery and offers the perfect atmosphere for every nuance of the story. The nautical feel is evident but not over-bearing and leaves plenty to the imagination. What struck me with this production was the visual way in which the back-story was put across to the audience at the beginning, with added musical entertainment and dancing giving a light feel in contrast to the dramatic and turbulent tale which unfolds.

Stephen Beckett would never have been my automatic choice for the role of Prospero, and yet his portrayal was so thoughtful, considered, understated at times and powerful that I cannot imagine anyone else in the part – he surpassed the Prospero’s I have watched before. His chemistry with daughter, Miranda (Grace Carter) was extraordinarily believable, their father/daughter relationship played out beautifully and Carter was a genteel yet gutsy Miranda who could not have suited the role better. Gavin Swift’s Ariel was agile, able to blend like the proverbial chameleon and occasionally had a violin in tow, which he played brilliantly. Zephryn Taitte’s Caliban seemed almost benign to begin with, fairly non-descript, yet he came into his own when he met the drunken butler, Stephano, played with excellent comic timing by Jonathan Charles and Trinculo, the ‘jester’ who in this piece was a ventriloquist and played expertly by James Hornsby. The trio were a comedy force to be reckoned with and certainly a hit with the audience. James Lawrence put the sneer, simper and cunning into the ever-plotting Sebastian with gusto, Lawrence returns after his performance in Othello last year and he is an asset to Stafford Shakepeare Festival. Richard Gibson breathed new life into the bumbling Gonzalo, playing him with an air of smugness, I felt, which befitted the role and allowed the character to come to the fore more so than in other versions that I’ve seen. A special mention must also go to Katrina Kleve who gave a glorious performance as Francesca, a fine dancer, singer and all-round entertainer.

Miss The Tempest at your peril, Stafford Shakespeare have produced yet another superior version of a popular classic and the setting of Stafford Castle sets it off in stunning fashion.

 

 

Spotlight On… Star of The Tempest, James Lawrence

The Tempest comes to Stafford Shakespeare Festival this year, Thursday 22nd June – Saturday 8th July 2017. Actor James Lawrence performed in last year’s festival production of Othello and Break A Leg chatted to him about his experience. This year he will play Sebastian in The Tempest and returned to us to talk about his next visit to Stafford Castle.
For more information and to book tickets visit this link:
Thanks for returning to Break A Leg for an interview, James, glad to have you back again. Tell me about your role in The Tempest…
I play Sebastian, one of the shipwrecked Italians on the island. He’s not exactly a pleasant man when you first meet him and it isn’t long before he begins to take advantage of the situation in order to advance his own interests. He’s younger brother to the also-marooned King Alonso of Naples and Sebastian sees their predicament on the island as an opportunity to brutally seize power for himself. It’s an enormously enjoyable role and I get to play opposite some truly fantastic performers in those scenes, so I’ve absolutely loved my time as Sebastian so far. Eagle-eyed audience members may well spot me in a very different guise as the play progresses as well; all I’ll say is that it’s well worth paying a bit of extra attention when the goddesses are onstage…
What’s it like to be able to return to Stafford Castle in another Shakespeare play?
It’s an absolute privilege, I was here last year for Othello and it was one of the best jobs I’ve ever done as an actor. The setting of Stafford Castle is absolutely phenomenal and I cannot wait to get back up there. Not only that, but the whole Gatehouse team have been amazing during rehearsals as well; it feels as though I never left. Ultimately, it’s just great to be back and to be a part of this wonderful theatrical tradition. I can’t wait for our audiences to see what we’ve been up to. It’s great to be reunited with our creative team as well; our director Clare Prenton is among the best I’ve ever worked with and our musical director Craig Adams has excelled himself again this year with the music in the show, so it’s wonderful to be back on board with them.
Aside from it being a different play, how will this production differ from last year’s?
It’s more than my life is worth to give away some of what our design team has planned, but we’re really going for some spectacular stuff. The character of Prospero has acquired a certain level of magical expertise, so our brilliant Illusion Consultants Morgan & West have been working on some very cool magic for the show. As well as that, our wonderful designer Frankie Collier has come up with one of the most incredible sets I’ve ever seen. Last year was a visually stunning production, but she’s really outdone herself this year. Music still plays a key role in this year’s production, but it has a slightly different flavour this time around. In this production, the action largely takes place on an island just off the coast of Somalia and the music in the show definitely reflects that. However, it’s set in the 1930s so audiences can definitely expect to hear a few familiar tunes from that era as well! The whole production really is a feast for the eyes and ears.
What was your knowledge of the text before you got the part?
I’d read it plenty of times, but I’d never actually been lucky enough to work on it before. So I knew the text itself fairly well, but that doesn’t really mean anything until you get to working on it in the rehearsal room. When you do, you realise just how much there is to play with. So from an actor’s point of view, it’s been enormously enjoyable to excavate the text and explore it every day. That’s one of the things that makes working on Shakespeare so wonderful, he leaves so much up to the actor’s discretion but the clues are all there for you as well and there are always new discoveries to be made. 
Why do you think that Shakespeare’s plays remain so relevant today?
I mean, where do you start? The motivations and drive behind so many great Shakespeare’s characters are hugely prevalent in today’s society. There was something spectacularly Shakespearean about Theresa May stepping over the corpses of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove after the EU referendum last year and we now see her decline almost mirroring that of Macbeth. But for me, it’s the odd line that resonates and stays with you on a personal level and The Tempest is full of those. I think that’s what great writing does. It provides us with an escape while still holding a mirror up to our lives. These words that were written more than 400 years ago still have the power to move, inspire and thrill us; it’s hard to overstate quite how remarkable an achievement that is.
What do you hope the audience will take away from the piece?
The Tempest is an incredibly fun play with a host of wonderfully entertaining characters. But this production also has some more serious points to raise which will hopefully provide some food for thought for our audiences. While none of the characters are British, there are some very interesting parallels in the play which ought to encourage us to take a look at our colonial past and also how we perceive our relationship with some of those countries in modern times. For instance, I think the treatment of Caliban in this production could make for uncomfortable viewing for contemporary audiences, but it’s always worth reminding ourselves of some of the more unpalatable parts of our history and how they inform the kind of society we are today. 
Finally, what would you say to encourage people to come?
The Tempest is widely believed to be Shakespeare’s final play and it very much reads like ‘Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits’. There’s romance, murder plots and some of the best comedy he ever wrote. So even if you haven’t gone near Shakespeare since school, I promise there’s something in this production for you to enjoy. There are some passages which do seem to be something of a farewell from him and he died only five years after writing it, so it’s also quite poignant for those who are already fans of The Bard. With that said, while I’m a huge lover of Shakespeare’s work, the real star here is the beautiful setting of Stafford Castle.  The setting, light and yes, the weather are characters in their own right and I speak from experience when I say that it’s one of the very best ways to spend a summer’s evening. I jumped at the chance to work with our incredible creative team again and they’ve also managed to assemble one of the best casts I’ve ever been fortunate enough to work with. So come along; we’d be absolutely delighted to see you there.
Thanks James, so wonderful to chat to you again and can’t wait to see The Tempest!

Spotlight On… Othello Star, James Lawrence

James Lawrence was a particularly notable performer when I enjoyed the pleasure of watching and reviewing Othello at Stafford Castle. It was fantastic to speak to him about his career to date and what it’s been like to star in this amazing piece of theatre.
Thanks for chatting to Break A Leg, you’re currently appearing in Othello at Stafford Castle, playing the role of Cassio, how are you enjoying Shakespeare in the open air?
I love it. I love performing Shakespeare anyway, but this job is something very special. Our wonderful designer Frances Collier imagined this incredible world for us to inhabit and the tremendous team from the Gatehouse have made it a reality. It’s a real treat to do this show. The audiences have been lovely as well; rain or shine they’re out in force which is great to see. When you look at The Globe and you think about how theatre was performed in Shakespeare’s day, it makes perfect sense to do it like this; it was written for this kind of space.
How well did you know Othello before you took the role?
Pretty well, I actually played Montano in a production at Riverside Studios in London in 2014. It was my first professional theatre job after leaving drama school, so Othello is a play that’s very close to my heart. But it’s been great to have the opportunity to revisit it, because the richness that permeates all of Shakespeare’s work means there are always new discoveries to be made. I do think Othello is a particularly fine example of what he was so good at tapping into, those darker sides of our personalities that we might not always wish to acknowledge. We can all privately identify to a certain extent with the jealousy, capriciousness and despair in this play and I think that’s why it’s one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated works.
Is there a scene in particular that you find poignant or that has become one of your most anticipated?
I’m always listening out backstage for the opening lines of Act 5, Scene 2 (“It is the cause, it is the cause my soul”) because that whole section is just exquisitely written and performed brilliantly by Oli and Maddi. You always feel watching that scene that there might be some way for Desdemona to save herself, that Othello might realise in time that he’s been duped by Iago. It’s one of those moments where even though you might know how it plays out, as you watch you can’t help but wish for a different ending. It used to break my heart watching it in rehearsal, so I’m a little disappointed that I can only listen to it now that we’re up and running! As for most anticipated, the scene where Cassio gets ragingly drunk is brilliant fun. I had to go deep with my research on that one. Nathan Turner (Montano) is a great fighter too, so our punch-up in that scene is always very enjoyable.
You trained at Arts Ed, to give an idea to any aspiring drama students out there, what was the experience of training there like?
It was hard. It’s a real insight into yourself and your own character which can be a very tough thing to face initially. I felt like a total fraud for most of the first term. Like any minute someone was going to come up and tap me on the shoulder and say “Alright mate, you’ve had your fun. Time to go.” I still feel like that sometimes. Perhaps paradoxically though, it was also the first place in my life where I felt I truly belonged. I’m not a morning person at the best of times, I would call myself a lie-in aficionado. But some mornings I literally jumped out of bed because I couldn’t wait to get in there. Even on the hardest days, I was so thankful that I was there and I genuinely loved every second. To aspiring drama students, I would say if you can’t see yourself doing anything else, you owe it to yourself to have a proper go at it. I couldn’t bear the thought of wondering what might have been. It might not happen the first time you go for it, but so much of the business of being an actor is about perseverance and going again. If it’s the right path for you, you’ll know. And it will show in your work.
What made you decide to train as a performer and to attend Arts Ed in particular?
I had never even briefly entertained the idea of being an actor until the last year of university in Cardiff when I joined the drama society. I ended up getting cast in The Crucible, which came as a massive shock as I’d pretty much just been gunning for playing one half of that year’s panto horse. I was sitting in a café in Cardiff talking to an actor called Sam Blythe who was in the show with me and we just sort of spontaneously agreed that we both had to try and take it further. And five years on, we’re both still here! In fact, he was also in the production of Othello at Riverside Studios, which was a lovely bit of serendipity. As for Arts Ed, I knew as soon as I set foot in the place that it was the right one for me. One size does not fit all when it comes to drama schools and I went around a few very good schools that just didn’t feel right. But when I auditioned at Arts Ed, I just knew I was home. Aileen Gonsalves was the course director there at the time and she was a big part of that feeling. I knew it was the right course for me and where I was at that point.
What have your career highlights been since graduating?
There have been a few actually. That’s one of the brilliant things about this job, every now and again a gig will come along – like this one – where you just catch sight of where you are and what you’re doing and you just think “Oh my God…this is so cool.” There are a lot of shows that I look back on very fondly, but my absolute highlight would be a show called Travesti which I did at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2014. It was a verbatim show that told women’s stories through the mouths of men. That’s a potted description, but I don’t really know how else to describe it without getting a bit tangential. We were up there with a phenomenal cast and a great creative team behind us and it was an amazing month. People would stop us in the street to talk about the show and their response to it. It all felt quite surreal. The Scotsman called towards the end of the run to tell us they wanted to give us the Fringe First award, which was absolutely bonkers. We had our producer on speakerphone and we all just jumped around the kitchen for about 10 minutes. I’m a huge Camille O’Sullivan fan and she presented us with the award which was amazing. I’ve watched the video back and I think I played it cool, but inside I was going nuts.
Are there any parts on stage or screen that you would call your ‘grail’ roles?
I suppose this might seem unimaginative but in terms of stage, I really hope I get a shot at Hamlet one day. I fell in love with that play when I studied it before ever wanting to be an actor and now I just feel like it’s there in the background. It’s an itch I’m going to have to scratch at some point in the next 15 years or so! I’d love to be able to give Sunday in the Park with George a go when I’m older as well. I love Sondheim and that show is one of his finest. In terms of screen, The Doctor in Doctor Who. Without question. I’m a big sci-fi fan and watching Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant after the 2005 revival was amazing, that would be the absolute definition of a grail role for me. Even to just be on the show would be a dream come true. You look at someone like Simon Pegg who grew up loving Star Wars and Star Trek and then he ends up acting in them and writing for them! If that happened for me with Doctor Who (or Star Wars, I’m not picky) then I could die happy, everything else would just be garnish.
You also have a music career, what sparked your interest in music and how would you describe your style?
I think music was just this ever-present thing when I was growing up. My mum always used to play David Bowie, The Jam and her old punk records around the house and my dad used to sing in folk clubs and male voice choirs, so I think it’s always been something that’s been a part of me. I love how evocative music can be, it’s like nothing else. There are some songs that just shift my mood, no matter where I am and what I’m doing. I love Desert Island Discs for that reason, it’s fascinating to hear what makes people tick musically. As for my style, I’m primarily a guitarist so if I’m gigging on my own, I tend to gravitate towards acoustic stuff. It varies depending on where I’m playing. There’s a guitarist from America called Buckethead who’s sort of my musical inspiration. The things that man is able to do with a guitar are simply baffling. Antonio Forcione, Newton Faulkner, George Harrison, Chet Atkins and Paul Simon are big parts of what I do as well. It’s not particularly guitar-heavy, but You Can Call Me Al is my favourite song of all time.
Finally, with a few days left of Othello, what would you say to encourage potential audience members to come along?
The weather forecast for the final week is sunny! Not only that, but it’s a terrific opportunity to see not just one of Shakespeare’s best plays, but one of the best plays ever written. The backdrop of Stafford Castle is stunning, especially when the sun sets; the play really comes to life when it’s dark. Our director Clare Prenton had an amazing vision for the show from day one and it’s been brilliant to see everyone bring it life – actors, stage management, wardrobe, design, production, everyone. So come along, enjoy the summer and some great theatre and come and say hello afterwards!
You can visit http://www.james-lawrence.com for more information about the lovely gentleman in question, huge thanks to James for his time!
All photo credits: Natalya Chagrin

Othello ~ Stafford Festival Shakespeare, Stafford Castle

Othello is staged at Stafford Castle – 23rd June to 9th July 2016

Jealousy, corruption, love and murder, all in one play, and all acted out in front of the sensational backdrop of Stafford Castle. It’s that time of year again, Stafford Festival is presenting its Shakespeare offering, outdoors and this year’s choice of Othello proved to be an inspired decision.

Set in Venice and Cyprus, with a seaside postcard 50’s theme and a marvel of a set coupled with perfect lighting design, it’s a production to be proud of. Othello tells the tale of a decorated war hero who has secretly married his love, Desdemona, he is the subject of envy for Iago, an ensign in Othello’s army. Iago despises the fact that Cassio has been promoted over him and he is aware of a rumour that his own wife, Emilia, has had an affair with Othello. Roderigo, a civilian in Venice, has misguidedly confided  in Iago, his love for Desdemona and Iago takes advantage of this, too. The villainous plans of Iago begin to unravel the happiness of each central character, until their fate claims them.

Oliver Wilson plays the love-struck title role, he showed a good command of the role, directing my attention to Othello’s unbridled joy, his plight and his inevitable downfall. I noted the gradual decline in his ego and mentality as Iago planted his evil seed. Iago, played by Niall Costigan is villain through and through, conniving, cunning, almost rat-like qualities in his movements. He also brought an even degree of comedy to the role, which gives another dimension to a complex character. Despite the title of the piece, Iago is the pivotal character, in my opinion, he has his finger in every pie and orchestrates every nuance. Madeleine Leslay makes a stunning Desdemona, every inch the young and beautiful new bride, she has believable chemistry with Wilson and also plays the relationship with Cassio with marked subtle overtures. James Lawrence gives a well balanced performance as the unwitting Cassio, he is particularly skilled in the fight scenes. Hester Arden breathed life into Emilia in a way I’ve not witnessed before, a variety of strategically placed facial expressions, together with body language to set her apart from Desdemona. A particularly impressive performance.

The cast as an ensemble were strong, with not one weak link among them and it was thrilling to see so many of them were also adept musicians and singers. Indeed the musical accompaniment was the key to set this piece apart from its contemporaries. Congratulations to Producer, Derrick Gask, Clare Prenton (Director) and the rest of the production team, you’ve created something special.

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