There are few lovelier places to spend a balmy summer's evening than the beautifully cultivated garden that is St Paul's Churchyard. Situated smack dab in the middle of the West End bustle, the venue is an oasis of greenery and peace (well, relatively speaking considering the neighbourhood) that has been a prime venue for outdoor theatre for many years.
The garden's many qualities were on display last night during Iris Theatre's promenade production of The Tempest. Taking place over a variety of outdoor stages (and later inside the Church itself) the show quickly envelops the audience in its outlandish, comic, yet also innately profound events.
Despite the promenade staging, Iris Theatre's production is by the book - less an interpretation of the text and more a translation with authenticity to the play's historical roots. What that basically means is that it includes all my favourite things about good Shakespeare: older actors booming out portentous speeches; the satisfying to-and-fro between the sacred and the profane that serves up dick and fart gags cheek alongside noble soliloquys about the nature of reality; and the surreal thrill of laughing along with a joke that's somehow still funny 400 years after it was written.
All this is performed by a cast that doesn't put a foot wrong. Jamie Newall's Prospero radiates intelligence and confidence, a man comfortable in his own skin happy to be the smartest guy in the room. In the closing scene, he gazes out at the audience and exclaims "O brave new world, that has such people in 't!" Given that Prospero is generally understood as an analogue for Shakespeare, Newall's piercing delivery makes the line feel like a message through the generations to us.
Similarly great are Paul Brendan and Reginald Evans' Trinculo and Stephano. The pair spend much of the play getting rat-arsed, blundering about the magical island like they're on a pub crawl. Both compliment the others sweaty, staggering elasticity - bringing a bit of Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson's Bottom to the Bard of Avon.
Also great is Prince Plockey's Caliban, upon which the play finds a bit of political meat to chew. Caliban is essentially the archetypal 'monstrous' native (it's theorised his name is a reference to 'Cariban' - the term for indigenous Caribbean people in the 17th century). Though there's a long tradition of black actors taking the role, it's still a incredibly charged image when he's introduced in chains as Prospero's slave. Later, when Prospero says, "this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine" it also feels nervously, intentionally awkward.
Much has been written about the colonialism inherent in The Tempest, with Prospero as the European coloniser and Caliban and Ariel representing rebellious and servile members of the indigenous population. Iris Theatre's production doesn't tackle this head-on, but visually aligning Caliban's situation with the history of African slavery in the Caribbean gives a bit of bite to the production, underlined by Plockey's sincere, committed performance.
Anyhow, like I said nobody's bad here (and I have to give a shout-out to Joanne Thomson's super thirsty Miranda), but the undisputed star of the night is Charlotte Christensen's Ariel. She sings! She acts! She dances! She plays multiple instruments! If you'd have tossed a couple of eggs onto the stage she'd probably make a world-class souffle! Clad in a striking outfit that makes her look a bit like a Restoration-era David Bowie, she comes across as genuinely otherworldly - living up to her billing as an air spirit in temporary human form.
I'm not kidding when I say there is literally no moment in this production where Christensen isn't kicking ass - even when she's waiting in the wings she's observing proceedings with an unnerving curiosity. At one point in the show she transforms into a malevolent harpy to terrorise Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano - her costume is an elaborate feathered affair with gigantic wings and this, in combination with her iron grip on her body language, makes for a jaw-dropping visual.
By the time Prospero (and by extension Shakespeare himself) is bidding us farewell and asking us to release him through our applause, the sun had set, night was beginning to creep in and there was a chill in the breeze blowing through the shaded garden. High above the philosophical musings of the elderly sorcerer, bats were wheeling and circling, occasionally illuminated by the crimson tang of the stage lights. It was a moving sight to cap off a very memorable evening, cementing Iris Theatre's The Tempest as one of the most satisfying ways to spend an evening in London this summer.
The Tempest is at St Paul's Church until 28 July. Tickets here.