Magical outdoor Tempest filled with “sounds and sweet airs”

Review by Brian MacReamoinn

In a spectacular curtain-raiser to the Salisbury International Arts Festival, this promenade production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest enthralled the audience in Churchill Gardens.

The park, one of the largest green spaces in the city, was transformed into the magical island setting of the play, with various locations being used for the play’s different scenes.

We arrive armed with rugs, blankets and fold-up chairs, as well as picnics. Ushered into a wide, open area of grassland, we gather in a semi-circle in front of a magnificent ship, built using all kinds of recycled materials (design by Dan Potra).

Before the storm that opens the drama, cast members in full costume treat us to a string of sea shanties to get everyone warmed up (though the weather was still very pleasant at seven o’clock).

After the ship is dramatically wrecked (sound design by Mike Beer), we file through a pop-up tunnel into the sea where we are greeted by an array of marine creatures, including large jellyfish, among others. It is an amazingly imaginative display of craft-making (again using recycled materials) by some of the community groups who play key roles in the whole show.

We are then shepherded along the park’s walkways to the next location, where we meet the exiled Prospero (Robert Bowman) and his daughter Miranda (Emma Lau). This is also the first appearance of Ariel, here personified by a 30-strong band of figures clad in black costumes with a lightning bolt on the front.

The transformation of the spirit into a running, swooping swarm-like presence (Khiley Williams is the movement director) proves a bold but highly effective stroke. This many-voiced Ariel also sings and chants, the sweet harmonies filling the night air (musical supervision by Kate Edgar).

In another change, some characters have switched genders. Alonso (Lloyd Notice) remains a king and Sebastian (Robert Macpherson) his brother, but Antonio becomes Antonia (Elizabeth Crarer) and Gonzalo is renamed Gonzala (Georgina Sutton). The knockabout clowning of Stephana (Heather Phoenix) and Trinculo (Matt Crosby) is very engaging. Throughout, Gareth Machin’s brisk direction keeps the action flowing freely.

The verse is delivered clearly and naturally, and not in that overly pronounced way occasionally encountered when actors, in attempting to emphasise the sacredness of the text, end up sounding stilted and portentous.
The odd modern interjection gets laughs too, as when Ferdinand (Samuel Tracy), celebrating his success with Miranda, exclaims, “Get in!” like an excited football fan whose team has just scored.

The walkabout takes us on a wonderful journey all around Churchill Gardens and its facilities.

One scene takes place in the skateboarding area, while, in another, Caliban (David Partridge) enters on a slide and exits on a zip-wire.

At one point during a crucial speech a dog barks loudly, demonstrating one of the hazards of outdoor theatre in a public space.

This thoroughly entertaining evening is a tribute to the lasting quality of Shakespeare’s work, its timelessness and relevance to the modern world.

The allegorical and symbolic drama can be read in so many different ways, keeping it fresh and original and thus always capable of attracting new audiences.

This interpretation with sustainability at the heart of its design, highlighting the current state of the planet and bringing into focus the extent of plastic pollution globally, is on trend at the moment.

The RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) put on a similarly themed, though stage-bound, version at Stratford-upon-Avon recently.

However, the Salisbury show takes things to another level. The scale of the production, the complex logistics of multiple locations, the collaboration of different acting, dance and music groups, plus all the community volunteers involved – it is quite an achievement.

With our revels now ended, we troop out of the park with the sun having just set, and as we make our way across the still-busy ring road, we reflect on what a trip it has been to such a magical island.

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