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The Tempest (review)

From: Shakespeare Bulletin
Volume 30, Number 3, Fall 2012
pp. 358-361 | 10.1353/shb.2012.0053

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Jericho House Company, directed by Jonathan Holmes, had already made a stir with its politically engaged theatre when in October 2011 it brought The Tempest to St Giles’ Cripplegate. The production was part of their Utopia Season commemorating the enterprises, spirit, and ideas enlivening London at the beginning of a colonialist project whose end has shaped the world of modern audiences. The 400th anniversary of the play that encapsulates the challenges at the beginning of that undertaking, seamlessly connected the company’s vision with the historical space of St Giles.

Originally conceived as a touring production for the Middle East, cast and designed to respond to contemporary realities in that part of the world, Jonathan Holmes’ Tempest was also enhanced by a musical score with strong regional taste, which attempted to restore what the director believes to be the original balance between text and music. Coming from the Arab world of 2011 into a church resounding with memories of 1611, the production activated a complex dialectic of engagement. This was site-responsive theatre. St Giles is a true archaeological site for the Protestant and colonial endeavor, and a place which bears the memory of war. One of the translators of King James’s Bible, published in the year when The Tempest was written, was rector there. Polemicists, explorers, pirates, poets, and an actor from Shakespeare’s company rest under its vaults, which were bombed during The Blitz.

Visually, the production inhabited the space through a sparse metal scaffolding which hugged the altar pillars displaying Middle-Eastern peace posters, vandalized by ongoing conflict. A ruined wall with a crumbling mural of startled-looking saints cohabited with screens decorated with medallions of religious Arabic inscriptions. An ancient marble tomb, which looked very much part and parcel of the church, was revealed to be part of the set. St Giles’s black-and-white marble altar floor morphed into colorful mosaic, making the transition between the theatrical and audience spaces almost imperceptible. The seating, too, integrated the two spaces: the rows of church pews were extended by raked theatre seats. Among the silent layers of history, actual and fictional, lay the detritus of a shipwreck—some orange crates visibly logoed “Europe quality” and a broken bell-shaped crow’s nest, lit by dozens of hanging and standing lamps of various shapes and shades created the sense of an eastern temple inside the church.

Inhabiting this barely put together world were modern characters whose clothes looked as if they had been recycled from older bits and pieces. Both Ariel and Miranda made do with very little: they walked barefooted in shabby vests and trousers; at the end, the skirts of Miranda’s wedding dress were made of sewn together colorful neck-ties. Prospero’s cloak, embroidered with magic signs, was the only attire of value, while his staff was nothing more than a white-painted tree branch. Indeed, it all looked desperate enough to be held together only by magic, but whose?

This Tempest was openly stage managed by Ruth Lass’s powerful Ariel, whose presence was significantly enhanced by her stunning singing and omniscience. She not only created the island’s “noises,” but controlled all the elements and the space. From the auditorium she conjured up the storm, and later emerged as a furious harpy—masked, tall on stilts, her voice dangerously amplified. Often, she occupied a higher position on the scaffolding to watch the events, just as the audience did, thus placing them in the same position. Ariel’s care and agency were crucial to Miranda’s understanding the story and they often shared a high vantage point on the scaffolding. The story she magic-ed up for Miranda was not only that of Prospero’s exile but also of the history of the island with their stories embedded in it. At the end, Prospero gave Ariel the magic cloak, an action which looked like a return of an appropriated object, rather than a gift. The staff remained on the island.

By encouraging the simplest of theatrical contracts—the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief—Holmes managed to create a double-layered reality. His King of Naples ghosted the space, walking...

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