It’s not often that you get the opportunity to catch a modern theatre production in the hallowed, majestic surroundings of St Giles’ Cripplegate. Ensconced in the Barbican, this medieval church overlooking a lake serves as an apt setting for Jericho House’s enchanting, if sometimes confounding, production of The Tempest.
This production previously toured Jerusalem, Haifaand the West Bank. Unfolding in the grounds of a refugee camp would no doubt have lent a potent political relevance to the play, with its themes of division and exile, vengeance and forgiveness. However, within the confines of a church and under Jonathan Holme’s inspired direction, this site-specific production was more evocative this time around of the magic, musicality and lyrical dialogue of the play rather than any overt political parallels. There’s a clever duality to the costuming – undeniable Middle Eastern influences (bright, shimmering tangerine fabrics) juxtaposed with cream linen suits.
Lucy Wilkinson’s lovely and effective set design transforms four stone pillars and a checkered marble floor into an island-ship illuminated by a sparkling myriad of hanging lanterns. Two structures on either side of the improvised stage act as vantage points up which the actors deftly clamber.
It’s clear that composer Jessica Dannheisser intends to delight and transfix the audience. And that she achieves this with great aplomb – The Tempest is probably the most musical Shakespeare play I have seen, with the score being woven into the echoing surroundings almost constantly, either in the background or accompanying Ruth Lass’s impeccable, timeless voice.
The cast is generally strong, although some decisions struck me as a bit puzzling – omitting the character of Gonzalo entirely, and Nathalie Armin’s dual roles of Antonia and Stephanie although she acquits herself incredibly well, veering between graceful composure and sleazy duplicity. Stephen Fewell’s David Brent-esque Trinculo generated the most laughs and Lass’s Ariel was quite predictably the standout- with her eerie shrieks and languid movements she stalked and inhabited the stage with a sublime ferocity.
The strongest moments came from the perfect synergy between actors and the unique setting – whether conjuring up the titular tempest through excellent physical acting, torches and stormy sound effects; or the act when Ariel appears as a vengeful, avian head-dressed apparition on a pair of stilts integrating an amazing element of shadow-play when her terrifying silhouette is cast across the church windows.
Alan Cox seems to have brought a new, admirably restrained interpretation to the typically magnetic, formidable Prospero; although his Prospero is toned down to the point of fading into the background at times. I thought a more embittered and impassioned delivery would have made the audience engage more with the conflicts of this catalysing character. Another slight complaint would be the clumsy incorporation of the musicians into the production – while I respect that it is a common thing to make actors of the musicians, I found their onstage presence awkward and musical director Emily Baine’s line reading extremely jarring. (Although her musical direction and flute-playing were impeccable.)
These are secondary points that never get in the way of audience enjoyment. Jonathan Holmes has capably directed a site-specific Tempest which makes full use of its grand, gloomy surroundings. Although the gender changes, dual roles and omissions make it a sometimes confusing experience, this is a production worth seeing for its fantastic, immersive sense of atmosphere and whimsy.
The Tempest is playing at St Giles Cripplegate Church at the Barbican Centre until 22nd October. Information and tickets from the Barbican Centre’s website.