The Tempest is a play about mastery. The storm masters the crewmen, Prospero masters the island, Ferdinand masters his emotions. If only Grassroots Shakespeare had mastered The Tempest.
Hopes were high for Grassroots Shakespeare’s Christmas season at Kentish Town’s Lion and Unicorn Theatre, having been recently nominated for two Off West End awards for their production of Much Ado About Nothing. Formed in 2011 by Siobhán Daly, an actress and producer who here plays Sebastian, the company is known for embracing the concept of ‘original practice’: restoring some of the conditions under which Shakespeare operated. They eschew a director in favour of a more collaborative style of rehearsal, and their approach to Shakespeare is refreshing, exuberant and accessible.
However, the absence of a director is something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it gives a greater spontaneity and freedom; on the other, there’s a distinct lack of quality control. There is no doubt that the cast and crew of The Tempest have a strong sense of fun, and this is definitely endearing. The problem is, too much of this fun is at our expense.
We shouldn’t be too severe; this is, after all, a festive production, with all the family-friendly frivolity that this entails. Trinculo breaking into a rendition of ‘Jingle Bells’ or Juno singing her blessings to the tune of ‘Ding Dong Merrily On High’ both fall within the bracket of acceptable jollity. When, however, the cast start to sing ‘Three Times A Lady’, the reapers perform a conga dance with green tinsel around their necks, or Ariel inexplicably dresses up as Batman while he remonstrates with the conspirators, it lurches into the ridiculous.
There’s a sense that the cast are trying a little too hard, introducing changes to prove their individuality. This is unfortunate, as among the cast – composed entirely of recent drama school graduates – there is some real acting talent. Capturing the ethereal beauty of Miranda is no cakewalk, but the delightful Daisy Ward is absolutely convincing as a “cherubin” who “didst smile/Infusèd with a fortitude from heaven”. Matthew Walker, meanwhile, is a dignified, sympathetic Prospero, admirably conveying the accumulating grievances of his years in exile; this is all the more impressive considering the actor’s youth.
Without doubt, Grassroots Shakespeare are to be commended for their enthusiasm. As Daly told OffWestEnd.com recently, “Fringe isn’t lucrative, so this cast is doing it for other reasons: for the love of Shakespeare and for the love of communicating that”. The cast contains some actors to watch, and their return to the Lion and Unicorn for Othello in April may yet be a success. While it is a pity that their version of The Tempest was, in the words of Prospero, an “insubstantial pageant”, the occasional misfire is forgivable, and this remains a young company with masses of potential.
The Tempest runs at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre until January 5 2013. For more information and tickets, see the website.