Art to Enchant: The Tempest at Jermyn Street Theatre

Saturday 14th March 2020, matinee

Jermyn Street Theatre, fast becoming our favourite West End Theatre, has given us the perfect chance to see Michael Pennington close up, and tick off another Shakespeare play – The Tempest.  And all in a space so small you can pretend that some actors have come round to your house to perform in your living room.

The plot is more of a device to explore the vagaries of the human condition, as Prospero is ousted from his Dukedom in Milan by his brother and left stranded on a remote island.  He learns magic (well he has a lot of time on his hands), enslaves the two remaining inhabitants (Ariel and Caliban) and bides his time for 12 years, waiting for his revenge. This character makes Hamlet seem positively impulsive.  We join the action as he finally has the chance to get even and punish his persecutors, but what will he do?

The set design makes the small space of Jermyn Street into an asset, realistic but spare, the audience are forced to imagine an internal landscape which is limitless.  The magic is not overdone, but presented in a very matter-of-fact way, as something no less wondrous and men being prepared to kill each other for power.  Prospero doesn’t so much manipulate as facilitate each character to show their real selves.  Hence with some clever double casting Ferdinand embraces his enslavement and uses it to earn the love of Miranda, in stark contrast to Caliban who abuses his host’s trust to assault her.

This is believed to be Shakespeare’s last solo play, the culmination of years of dedication to theatre.  Michael Pennington has also enjoyed a long career of acting, studying, writing about and teaching Shakespeare, and as Prospero, he brings a depth to the play that sets the whole tone of the production.  He starts the play with a mystical spell which starts the surreal action of the play, and then casts a spell over us, whether he is bringing to life some of Shakespeare’s most famous words when he is centre stage, or watching over the choas he has created.

Tom littler directs an excellent cast and keeps the tone natural and real, bringing out the humanity of the play.  As Ariel, Whitney Kehinde has a lightness of touch that convinces us she could be an invisible spirit with magical powers. She moves like a whirlwind around the tiny space, always graceful and with a gracious sense of benevolence and good humour as she indulgences Prospero’s every wish.

Kirsty Bushell is a fresh and energetic Miranda, unworldly but not foolish.  Tam Williams effortlessly moves between the roles of Ferdinand and Caliban with minimal costume changes and just his physicality and voice to help him.  Richard Derrington and Peter Bramhill also double up as two successful double acts.

This production seems to capture the sense of this play as a very personal, almost autobiographical, expression of Shakespeare’s reflections on his own life.  It is a farewell gift of a great writer to relinquish control and set the spirit free.

We should note that we were very lucky to see this production, which closed after 6 performances.  Jermyn Street hope to revive the play and are currently crowdfunding for a gala opening performance – if you want to help you can go here.

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