"360 degrees of fantastical work"
by Venetia Twigg for remotegoat on 17/07/14

Press night at the Cockpit; the audience peppers four sides of the auditorium as it awaits this in-the-round production – one that also promises puppetry, mask work and further sensory enthralment by way of music and choreography. Ambitious.

I am sure I can’t be the only reviewer wondering how they are effectively going to pull off presenting puppet to all sides, and as soon as the soundscape swells up, I realise that this certainly will not be the only innovation that the company plans to spring on us tonight. We are swiftly introduced to our Prospero for the evening, a young and female actor (Maia Kirkman-Richards), adorned with a magnificently huge puppet head. Ariel (Amy Lawrence)is a thrillingly ethereal puppet too; dreadlocked, flighty, and impressively guided betwixt every possible corner of the playing space, and our final puppet introduction comes later – to a three man Caliban (masterfully played by Jannik Archer and ensemble). The latter creature rolls and wheezes his way through existence, breaking apart and reassembling in a completely spellbinding fashion. This disjointed puppetry breaks with other puppet conventions on show, but craftily still abides by the ‘rules of the world’ – only magical or native islanders are portrayed in puppet form. Such delineation in fact becomes a very effective tool, immediately illustrating various key relationships and statuses.

But I digress. We still have the matter of a young female Prospero to broach – a huge challenge for any production dealing with paternal themes – but I must say that here, both the direction and the playing really shone. Maia moves, gestures, and even grunts like a jaded patriarch, and though the voice is female, one is almost instantaneously transfixed by the puppet. Further surprises include the use of female actors to portray both Trinculo and Alonso (be-masked and respectively exquisite in their physical humour and idiosyncrasy) and, the preternatural interaction with the set: Prospero’s books flutter or snap themselves into animation when riled by the ever-mutating ensemble. There is a lot going on, but wonderfully, it all pulls together, and furthermore, the company continue to take full advantage of the 360 degrees at their disposal.
Masks, puppets and human players are juxtaposed, often extracting a great deal of humour from their strange stage-fellows and gorging the audience from all angles with an aesthetic feast. Folk song and eclectic modern composition jostle for musical attention, but the mood is very carefully judged throughout, meaning that the music becomes a clear catalyst for the progression of the story.
My only small criticisms would be of the lightweight weaponry, which didn’t quite sit with the rest of the stylistic choices, and the decision to keep Prospero’s brother unmasked and youthful, meaning that the age-gap between the two siblings becomes impossible.
However, there is no weak link in the playing. Isabel Sharman is particularly likeable as Miranda, lending naivety and cutesiness in just the right measure, Stephano and Trinculo (Stuart Mortimer and Ellen Butler) clearly enjoy themselves terrifically in these roles, meaning that their comedy work is jubilant, and Prospero, Ariel and Caliban all excel in both puppet manipulation and character.
Prospero long ago seized a magical habitation from Caliban, and the newly-shipwrecked similarly dream of heady leaderships – so the environment is constantly being manipulated by newcomers, and one genuinely feels as if several worlds have collided. I’ve never seen a Tempest convey that message so strongly. A confederation of ideas and absolute riches of talent make this show unmissable and unique. Hats, masks and puppet-appendages go off to Director Alice Sillett and her multi-talented, multi-disciplinary team.

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