Friday, July 3, 2015

'The Tempest' at the Hope Theatre, 2nd July 2015

It's like sitting in an oven. On one of the hottest days of the year we dutifully troop into what can only be described as a sweatbox. To aid us we're spritzed with water, handed cool drinks, have paper fans supplied to us - the show has even had an interval added so we don't start fainting en masse. Rivulets of sweat trickle down our backs and are mopped off of brows; our shirts are loosened; our tongues flop from our mouths as if we're thirsty dogs. 

It is hot.

But oh, what an exquisite heat this is. After all, this is The Tempest, we're trapped upon a n isolated magical island, maybe things should be this scorching? The heat makes thoughts swim, this tale of sorcerers, cheeky spirits, conjuration, monstrous half-men, witches and drunk-as-all-hell butlers quickly feeling like a barely lucid dream. Famously, The Tempest foreshadows postmodernism, frequently drawing attention to its own artifice and whose primary mover is all too easily read as an analogue for Shakespeare himself.

Thick as Thieves' production plays things fast and loose, approaching it as a living text. This means frequent bashings of the fourth wall, a lot of adlibbing, direct interaction with the audience and lightning quick costume changes. Performed with a cast of four, Ariel Harrison, Marcus Houden, Nicky Diss and Thomas Judd, roles are swapped at whipcrack speed, the cast aiming to mine every last molecule of comedy.

It feels a little disconcerting to laugh this much during a Shakespeare play. Sure, he wrote a lot of comedies, but let's face it, most of them aren't exactly 'ha-ha' funny. Fortunately, Thick as Thieves are blessed with an extremely personable and talented acting quartet. As they work their magic on the audience, the laughter quickly becomes infectious. Be it a quizzical sideways glance, an unexpected interference with an audience member or a straightforward chunk of slapstick silliness, the giggles grow and grow. 

My favourite bits are some wonderful delivery from Thomas Judd (also excellent in Dorian Gray earlier this year), who deeply impresses in his confidence, fluency and charisma in the language. There's obvious glee in his eyes as he enunciates Caliban's promises of nimble marmosets and clustering filberts, picking through the syllables with relish. Other neat moments are the actual straight-up Elizabethan jokes - they're a bit dated, but each character's obvious disappointment that no-one's laughing creates a series of metajokes.

There's a strong physical component bolstering all that. Judd makes for a nicely bestial Caliban, hunching and scurrying along the ground as he peers up at his masters with insouciant unhappiness. Nicky Diss also turns in great work as the drunken butler Stephano, reeling around the stage and swigging from a bottle in a rather Keith Richards-y manner. Also impressive is the physical way in which Ariel Harrison approaches her namesake; cavorting around the audience and climbing up the walls to peer from her perch.

When a production accentuates the humour of Shakespeare there's always a fine line to draw: go too far and you lose the emotional core of the work. Though The Tempest is overtly fantastical, each character has their own glimmer of sincerity (some fainter than others, but it's there). Thick as Thieves recognises this, precisely understanding where and when to dial down the irreverence and take the material seriously. 

Prime among these is Marcus Houden's fine delivery of Prospero's famous final soliloquy. This is a bizarre and moving piece of writing, the lead character ending up alone on stage bidding farewell to magic and imploring us, the audience, to help him escape. The fluttering of our hands as we applaud will be the wind that spurs on Prospero's ship as he finally leaves the island. This speech is popularly taken to be Shakespeare's farewell to the theatre (The Tempest is Shakespeare's final complete play), the magician able to conjure up a tempest with a flick of his fingers equated to the magic of the playwright. 

It's an incredibly elegant (and surprisingly modern) bit of writing, and Houden performs it with grace and dignity. It functions as the capper on an excellent night; one that's seen an audience member knocking their drink over seamlessly incorporated into the narrative, men with their heads wedged in each other's arses and endlessly gigglesome bumbling buffoonery. 

Right now, the green parks and cool lidos of London might seem awfully inviting compared to a humid black box over a pub, but the Thick of Thieves' Tempest is worth the perspiration.


The Tempest is at The Hope Theatre, Upper Street until 18th July 2015. Tickets here.

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