Originally published on Reviews Hub
Two of the Bard Of Avon’s works have opened in quick succession this week in Bristol. They are as different as chalk and cheese, Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory’s Hamlet is clear, crystalline and a little staid in its safety, Bristol Old Vic’s Theatre School is playful, sometimes enchanting, sometimes a little bit of a clusterf*ck. Each approach has its strengths and weaknesses; if I prefer the magical late play because of its tendency to go for risk over safe and steady.
Of course, The Tempest is a play that invites directors to have a go; full of shipwrecks, storms, magical apparitions and an original story that showed Shakespeare could mix plot with the best of them. Director Donnacadh O’Briain gets plenty right in this production: some of the verse speaking is strong, the musical interludes have an ethereal, eerie quality and the masques are hauntingly primal. Which makes it a shame that one directorial decision almost completely derails it.
Verbal comedy in Shakespeare is difficult to pull off but O’Briain’s solution to modernise the Stephano and Trinculo schtick; complete with interval DJ sets, ad-libs about Kraftwerk and stealing speeches from Richard II, mixed with little of the actual text; begins cute, becomes tiring and after 30-plus minutes incites you to want to commit physical violence. Every idea should be in place to illuminate the work, here it does little but blur. It’s not the performers’ fault, Jac Baylis, like a 70s Gene Jenie, and Tom Byrne, top hat and tails, are both likeable and versatile performers but sometimes the babies you create in the rehearsal room need to be killed. These attempts to plonk European techniques into the middle of a more straightforward working of the piece, takes this Tempest hostage in the middle and, however hard the cast works, they never completely pull it back.
It’s a shame as there is plenty elsewhere to like. Designer Aldo Vazquez Yela has created a strikingly blue playground of an island full of levels and panels that pull out with Prospero and Miranda clothed in furs that suggest a mix of Ancient Britain and native America while the shipwrecked crew of villains are dressed in sharp coloured suits from the Adam West Batman era. It’s a strong visual representation of the differences between the natives and the interlopers, a chasm slightly breached by Corey Montague-Sholay’s Ferdinand who has a more neutral dress style and falls in love with Lily Donovan’s Miranda, who holds her end up as the only female in the cast.
Danaan McAleer is a steadying presence as Prospero and plays him right from the off as a man who has forgiveness in mind for his usurping brother and assorted cronies. There is a moment early on when he displays his magical strength but by and large, he is a passive and magnanimous ruler of the isle. McAleer is one to watch, he brings gravitas and solid technique to his work and he is good at making the simple interesting. He also provided the same calibre of credibility as Badger in the school’s previous The Wind In The Willows; it would be great to see him taken out of his comfort zone in the final productions.
There is also stand out work from Dylan Wood who imbues Ariel with an angelic soaring voice and Josh Finan who twists his Caliban into a pitiful rather than twisted character. It’s a play that can easily be separated into three, strong beginnings, an enchanting ending and a middle section that completely loses its way. Patchy and uneven it may be, but it’s always enjoyable and provides plenty of talking points in the bar afterwards. That’s plenty enough for any production.
Runs until 27 February 2016 | Image: Toby Farrow