The Tempest was the first Shakespeare play I ever read. It was by force of the English department of my school, and I was about 11 years old at the time. I remember being anxious about reading it because the figure of Shakespeare had been built up with a certain reverence which made his work seem unapproachable (and quite probably boring). For, in the canon of English literature, in the tradition of the English stage, Shakespeare isn’t one of the greats so much as he is The Great, our Bard and Saviour. And so, I was taught – as I think so many of us are – to approach Shakespeare with a sense of unnecessary trepidation.
While I do believe that Shakespeare’s work deserves every inch of the esteem we afford it, I’m not sure we’re doing it justice by treating it so sombrely. Sure, the language may be unfamiliar and challenging, especially to an 11-year-old; furthermore, the complexity and richness of the plays themselves is what has made them so timeless; but it’s too easy in all of that to forget what fun Shakespeare can be.
Enter, The Unicorn Theatre.
The Unicorn Theatre is immediately welcoming with its casual atmosphere, giant glittering unicorn statue, cafeteria-style lobby seating, ushers dressed in sailor costumes, and cast members enthusiastically greeting the audience as they filter into the theatre; the play’s program even unfolds into a poster. I am, upon entering, hopeful that this Tempest will be every bit as magical as the text (and, it really is).
This production of The Tempest (directed by Tony Graham) is billed for ages 9+, and geared toward a youthful audience. It was performed in Shakespeare’s original verse with significant cuts from the original text, which lends the play a faster pace. The staging certainly included contemporary elements – red sunglasses to denote fairy spirits, a comically-deployed afro pick for Trinculo, a cunning reference to Heath Ledger’s Joker in Ariel’s stage makeup – but was by no means an attempt to modernise the play. Furthermore, both race and gender were ignored during the double-casting of the play (each actor plays two parts), adding to its dream-like, imaginative qualities, as well as toying with Shakespearean conventions. As a result, I didn’t feel like I was watching a Shakespeare that was dumbed down, simplified, or specifically for kids, and that’s primarily because it wasn’t; it’s not a production which talks down to or at its audience, and that is only one of the things which makes it work so well.
This production doesn’t delve into every aspect of the play, but no production – abridged or otherwise – can. The elements on which this Tempest chooses to focus are actually really brilliant. An emphasis is placed on its younger characters (Ferdinand and Miranda), on its comic under classes (Trinculo, Stefano & Caliban), and of course, its loving, oppressive fathers with obscure motives (Prospero). It takes as its central concerns things with which every teenager is familiar – drunkenness, struggles for freedom, lust and love.
The Tempest is replete with songs, wizardry, and slap-stick frivolity, and this production really let those elements shine. The energy of the cast was contagious, eliciting shrieks, giggles and glee from school groups and adults alike. It really engaged the audience, with the cast crawling up and down the aisles, and dragging girls out of their seats to join in the VIth Act’s revelry. But things like the group of school girls in the front row taking notes throughout the performance, or the ambiguous sadness of Prospero’s final monologue serve as a reminder that there’s more to be discovered under the surface of this frolicsome play. And part of the magic of this performance is that it has been so wonderful, it might inspire the audience to do so. Thus, the Unicorn’s production of The Tempest is not only children’s theatre as it should be, or a Shakespearean comedy as it should be, but simply theatre as it should be – serious, bawdy, fun.
The Tempest is on at the Unicorn Theatre until 19th June. For more information and to book, see the Unicorn Theatre’s website. Images by Alastair Muir. You can also read an exclusive interview with The Tempest‘s cast over in the Features section here on AYoungerTheatre.com.