"Rough magic casts its spell"
by Avril Silk for remotegoat on 01/10/16

The terrible stories of the current migrant crisis, and fears for a future that could, unbelievably, see Donald Trump as the next American President, inspired Yellowbelly and Untold theatre companies to collaborate on a production of ‘The Tempest’, set in the near future. Their brave new working of the play has much to commend it. Shakespeare’s words are spoken throughout with intelligence and deep understanding. The actors: Aimee Kember (Prospero /Trinculo); Jess Levinson-Young (Miranda/Antonio); Matt Penson (Ferdinand/Sebastian);Will Hobby (Caliban/Alonso) and Joseph Rynhart (Gonzalo/Stephano) all imbue their lines with unaffected naturalness – essential for the play to convince as a response to our times. The young cast bring energy and passion to the production, as well as the imaginative technical talent that lies behind Joseph Rynhart’s evocative and atmospheric projections.

The contrasts arising from the small cast each playing two main characters were very challenging but, I suspect, deeply satisfying. Jess Levinson-Young and Matt Penson’s tender young lovers were worlds away from their finely observed other roles as treacherous, would-be murderers. The chemistry between the two performers worked well for innocence and corruption.

Aimee Kember’s powerful sorcerer, enlivened with wry humour, has a focussed intensity, strength and dignity that totally eludes timid, drunken Trinculo. In addition, Aimee has the rare ability to deliver a throwaway line without wasting it.

As Gonzalo, Joseph Rynhart is compassionate and optimistic. As Stephano, he comes into his own with rumbustious gusto, aspiring to power, deluded and pompous (with an occasional nod to Frank Spencer.) Full on and great fun.

As for Will Hobby, it is a tribute to his talent and range that I’m prepared to reveal my own dimwittedness and admit that I thought Caliban and Alonso were played by two different actors. High praise, indeed.

One of the highlights of this production is the depiction of Ariel. It is both beautiful and original. Some choreographed sequences are extremely well done; particularly the shipwreck. There is further versatility in the use of music, although I think that aspect could be developed further, enriching the production even more.

When characters are faced with swift costume changes, it is tempting to simplify the process by just having them chuck on an all-concealing cloak, which can be rather visually unsatisfactory for the audience. With the exception of the scene when Stephano and Co. discover the ‘clothes’ that entrap them – travel rugs, frankly - Yellowbelly and Untold went by a more complex route. Their elaborate changes make life more difficult for them, but more interesting for us. This does lead to some fairly lengthy newsreel projections covering the changes, thereby risking repetition. In the main the images chosen were effective, affecting and hard hitting but one sequence, mostly static, was almost inaudible.

No-one could say the opening scenes were inaudible, however. A rare problem in the theatre – tonight the opening lines were too loud. I was going to say over-projected, but at times they were shouted and clarity was lost. I have noticed that the drama students studying at Cygnet New Theatre get to grips with the acoustics through regular performances –it is understandable that visiting companies sometimes find this difficult. As Untold and Yellowbelly settled into the play things improved and the balance of (auditory!) light and shade was achieved.

Having Prospero played by a woman was extremely interesting. I would prefer that the references in the script to Master etc. be changed to Mistress as at the beginning it was confusing. It might not trip off the tongue, or sound contemporary, but it has the advantage of being clear. ‘Boss’ might work at times…

I am still thinking long and hard about my recurring feeling that the links between Shakespeare’s play and the migrant crisis are somewhat tenuous. But - there is a shipwreck. People are betrayed and suffer. Politicians fail.

‘Castaway’ can have two meanings – shipwrecked and discarded. The interval projections showed that, in the past, had certain people, escaping war and persecution, been discarded, the world would be a poorer place. Who knows what potential is being squandered and jeopardised in the migrant camps of today. The thread of modern slavery could have been developed with regard to Ariel and Caliban in particular.

I wish there had been a programme – many of the points made in the projections could have formed the programme notes. Not only that – talent should be acknowledged.

Caliban’s fate seemed unclear. It seemed that we rushed into the ending without addressing a question that many others have Googled before me in reference to this play. My companions and I hoped that Caliban lived to enjoy his isle ‘full of noises/Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.’

In celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, reminding us of the horrors unfolding for those fleeing war, and raising money for Medecins sans Frontieres, Untold and Yellowbelly have produced vivid, memorable drama. The show at Exeter’s excellent Cygnet Theatre was sold out but there are more performances in the coming week.

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