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!

The Tempest ~ RSC, Stratford Upon Avon

The Tempest stays at Stratford until 21 January 2017: 

Star rating: *****

An extraordinary tale of betrayal, revenge and sorcery is brought to life thanks to wondrous special effects and a strong cast at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon.

The Tempest centres around Prospero (Simon Russell Beale) who is the rightful Duke of Milan and was betrayed by his brother, Antonio (Oscar Pearce). Antonio wanted the title of Duke and the property that came along with it, for himself, and set Prospero and his daughter Miranda (Jenny Rainsford) off to sea on a raft. This was twelve years earlier and against all odds, they have been living on an island.

With knowledge that Alonso, King of Naples (James Tucker) was travelling by ship with a party including Antonio, Sebastian, the King’s Brother (Tom Turner) and the King’s Son, Ferdinand (Daniel Easton) – Prospero uses the magic that he has learned to control, to create a horrific storm. The special effects and set used to mimic the storm are on par with the effects that are used in films and my heart was in my mouth while the ‘doomed’ troop was fearful for their lives.

Prospero, we learn, has not only taken control of the magic on the island, but also has a sprite by the name of Ariel (Mark Quartley) under his wing and has enslaved an inhabitant of the island, Caliban (Joe Dixon). Prospero’s tyranny is quite transparent, especially when it comes to his power over his daughter, too. Ariel longs for freedom which has been promised to him and Caliban wants his island to be returned to him so that he can live in peace. Meanwhile, Miranda falls in love with Ferdinand, who is brought to her and reciprocates her feelings. All of the ship’s passengers have made it ashore, unharmed, but they have been separated into three groups. Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian are among one group – where dark dealings are afoot with Antonia up to his old tricks and convincing Sebastian to murder the King, his brother. Alonso is caught up in grief as he believes that his Son, Ferdinand has not survived the storm.

The holographic technology utilised to aid the mystical appearance of Ariel offered a breath taking effect. Mark Quartley played the role with effortless elegance and roguish charm, anyway, however the added visuals were a stunning addition to the portrayal of the role. Joe Dixon had a caveman quality to his role of Caliban, primal and uncivilised, yet pained. It was a gritty performance which, I felt, earned much sympathy from the audience. Jenny Rainsford gave a balanced performance as Miranda, showing her girlish naivety and blending with a steely determination which escalated upon the arrival of Ferdinand. Daniel Easton was suitably love-struck as Ferdinand and demonstrated believable chemistry with Rainsford. I was instantly drawn to Oscar Pearce’s portrayal of Antonio, as it was clear which role he was playing before the introductions were made. Simpering, sarcastic and almost snarling at times, he was everything you would expect a traitor to be. Simon Russell Beale is an inspired choice as Prospero, he delivered the character’s monologues with ease, heart and precision. I found myself in turmoil as to my siding with him, unsure as to whether I pitied his misfortune at the hands of his brother or whether I despised him for his control of the island and his demands of Ariel.

My favourite characters in this story have always been the third party of castaways, Trinculo the jester (Simon Trinder) and Stephano the butler (Tony Jayawardena),

this motley pair bring light hearted moments when they’re needed and the casting of these two couldn’t have been better. Jayawardena in particular appears to be a very physical performer and he was able to play the drunken butler to hilarious perfection. Trinder bore a resemblance to Heath Ledger’s Joker from Batman, this in itself refocused my attention to the seriousness of the undertones where these characters are concerned.

Overall, this piece featured a spectacular set which made the best use of the stage, a cast who appear to have gelled, each member of whom embraced their role and brought out the themes of the play in their portrayals. The added magic and wonder which is provided throughout makes this a must-see this Christmas.

Photo credits: The RSC

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