The National Youth Theatre has thrown its offering into the Shakespeare anniversary hat with a fresh and original version of The Tempest.
It opened last night at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate Theatre and proved to be a shot in the arm to the usual canon, a thrilling, funny and pacy production that doesn’t falter for an instant.
Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s adaptation sees a gender swap and a relationship change but otherwise sets her story in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic time when the threat of foul air and nuclear fallout is ever present.
Director Caroline Steinbeis makes her mark within seconds of the play opening, aided by Tom Mills’ brilliantly strident score and Lucy Sierra’s imaginative set design.
A particularly effective shipwreck scene, gives the audience a window on what has been, before our new age Prosper (surely a play on words when she has lost so much) reveals her plans for the victims’ future.
Knowledge is power in this troubling story. Power, manipulation and ambition play a large part in The Tempest and, despite tinkering with the text, its adaptor can’t erase a particularly nasty theme that will grate with modern audiences – slavery and colonialisation.
Prosper, once the Duchess of Milan, has been exiled to an island along with her younger sister, Miranda. Welcomed by its native leader, Caliban, she wastes no time in making him her slave, regularly berating him and calling him her dark monster.
The poor wretch (an outstanding performance by Gabriel Akamo) is treated abysmally and, despite suggestions that he may have ravaged Miranda – or at the very least, attempted to – on the women’s arrival, he is treated like a sub-human to do their bidding.
On a spiritual plane Prosper, who has learned a few wizard tricks since spending all her time with a nose in her book (I think we’d probably call it getting an education), also enslaves a sprite, Ariel which, in this version, comes in six varieties, three male and three female.
They, like Caliban, yearn for freedom but must do their mistress’ bidding until she decides whether to release them.
Prosper is bent on revenge for her treatment and, in a harrowing scene, uses her Ariels to create a magical House of Horrors which drives three of the four survivors – Alonso, the King of Naples; Anton, Prosper’s brother; and his lover Simona – almost mad.
Meanwhile Miranda is introduced to Jay Mailer’s rather comic and impulsive Ferdinand, who, in this story is Alonso’s brother rather than son, and their whirlwind romance proceeds at lightning speed.
I must admit the Lenkiewicz version of family tree does become tangled. Fathers and sons, sisters and daughters, are rearranged out of necessity to take account of the company’s age and I’m not sure it entirely works.
Using entirely youth theatre players means that some characters – Prospero and Alonso – are youthful and, as such, not had the sagacity which comes through age.
But what is assured is that this is a first rate production, performed by the country’s leading young actors.
A female Prospero is nothing new. Helen Mirren has done it and it worked by adding a new dimension to the story which makes much more sense. Surely it would be easier to punish and exile a woman rather than a man, and doesn’t a woman make a better scholar/ magician?
Sophie Walter makes a splendid, if impulsive, Prosper, holding her all her power in a pencil and a shabby army greatcoat she wears over scruffy jeans and jumper.
Her dark hair is tousled and unkempt but this New Age traveller-look belies a determined leader who is not without a sadistic streak.
Sophie-Rose Darby, no stranger to the Royal stage, totters about on stilettos, a royal WAG, and succeeds in pulling the scheming Anton (Edi Cardoso in a part underwritten and giving him nothing to do but glower) for a bit of extra-curricular off-stage action as they plot to take the throne.
And, while their actions, caused merriment among the first night audience, it’s the downfall of chancers Trinculo (Joe Law) and Stephanie (Sophie Guiver) which raise the biggest laughs.
Here is a stormin’ Tempest that blows tradition out of the window and heralds fair weather for the future.
The Tempest, a co-production between the NYT and Royal & Derngate, runs on the Royal stage until July 2.
Hale and hearty. Here is a stormin’ Tempest, from the National Youth Theatre, that blows tradition out of the window and heralds fair weather for the future.