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Shakespeare in Quarantine: The Tempest

Before watching the Globe’s 2013 production of The Tempest, the only time I had encountered the play was in an English lesson at primary school. When I search up the performance online, one other production appears: the CBeebies Presents adaptation of the story. There is undeniably a certain quality to the Tempest that invites attention from audiences of all ages.

Yet these mystical elements, which entice a young audience into their first experience of Shakespeare, have sinister counterparts within the play. I was curious to see how director Jeremy Herrin would navigate this balance. Approaching the ever-present problem of making Shakespeare engaging for an audience is not an easy task. Yet the Globe’s Tempest achieves a faithful performance, drawing out both elements of the tragi-comedy genre.

Herrin’s direction comes to the fore in the comedy he manages to draw out of the most unassuming lines and moments. Of course, Shakespeare has curated the witty one-liners, but Herrin leans into the comedic potential of the play. Ferdinand has always seemed like a standard, one-dimensional Shakespearean love interest to me – think of the lovesick Claudio in Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 Much Ado About Nothing. Joshua James performs the earnest declarations of love without being too serious. Eager grins and over-zealousness achieve the laughs as the audience see how impulsive Ferdinand is. Here he provides the comic relief just as much as Trinculo or Stephano do.

The appearance of a few famous faces grounds the play. Roger Allam is no stranger to Shakespeare, given his decades of stage performance. His turn here as Prospero brings out the fatherly element of a character who often risks becoming shadowed by the revenge plot. The idea of a commanding stage presence feels like a well-worn cliché, but as Allam projects his speeches from the stage balcony – almost a living, breathing deus ex machina, he is fully in control of the audience’s focus.

The Globe will always serve as an impressive background for Shakespeare plays. Only two sets of rocks flank the performers onstage in this production, leaving a lot of space for the cast to make an impression. A very cleanly executed first scene involves the characters creating the movement of the ship at sea with the use of their bodies and the manipulation of a miniature boat.

Also making use of his physicality, Colin Morgan’s Ariel gains the audience’s attention with his  onstage acrobatics. The set designers have adapted the Globe’s scenery to accommodate discrete monkey bars, steps and platforms so Morgan can move freely around the space, a spritely figure transformed by his bizarre shimmering costume (Fur? Spikes? Hard to tell.)

I found the performance of Ariel’s menacing foil slightly less convincing. There was something about James Garnon’s delivery of Caliban which didn’t quite hit the mark for me. One review states how being head-to-toe in mud and blood steered too far away from the description of Caliban written in the play as a “strange fish.” Another review pitches his accent as Jamaican (though Garnon never really fully gets into this, if it was his intent).

I think this confusion is indicative of the level of freedom we have outside of Shakespeare’s texts. Faced with a text which names him “demi-devil,” “credulous monster” and “hag-seed” to name but a few, it’s understandable why any portrayal of Caliban might fall flat. Maybe after I’ve done my Shakespeare coursework in a few years’ time I might have some more authority to say whether Garnon, and the play as a whole, was a successful venture. But for now, I think that Herrin has produced a thoroughly entertaining take on The Tempest, and a worthwhile addition to the BBC’s “Culture in Quarantine” collection.