The Tempest, Cockpit Theatre

Shakespeare’s original performances wouldn’t have had rehearsals or a director, and the actors never received full scripts – it was too expensive and time consuming to copy them out. Instead, they learnt their lines and cues from a script that was just that – their lines and cues. This cue script technique is now a huge challenge to actors who are used to weeks of rehearsal and analysis before their first performance, but it’s a fun exercise – for performers. Audiences used to nuance and polish in their Shakespeare will miss these elements, even though the seat of the pants approach inevitably brings unintended comedy. Clocking in at three hours long with a large cast, this is a worthy experiment and one that is helped along by a director, but the approach lends itself to a snail’s pace and underdeveloped characters.

The performance is often slow and flat despite a prompter’s help, as actors tend to focus on their lines rather than characterisation and responding to others. Some are better at it than the rest, making the pace inconsistent. Those that struggle aren’t better or worse actors no more than the ability to, say, play a musical instrument or juggle does – but regularly needing support with lines inhibits connection with the story. Scenes with more characters are more of a challenge what with snappier dialogue and more cues; unfortunately these are most effective when played at speed. Speeches and two-character scenes are more successful, with greater energy and emotional range – Prospero and Miranda’s first scene together is particularly lovely.

This Salon:collective production is worth commending for their experimentation and diversity. Four roles normally played by men are now women, with language adapted to match: King of Naples Alonso (Geraldine Brennan), Prospero (Lizzie Conrad Hughes) Francisco (Odera Ndujiuba) and Gonzalo (Angela Harvey). With powerful characters now female, this world of betrayal and magic is distinctly feminine, which completely alters the relationship dynamics between characters. A female Gonzalo’s support for a female Prospero in the face of forced exile by male Antonio (Dominic Kelly) reframes the event as sisterhood in the face of masculine oppression of women in power – an example of the impact gender reversal can have in Shakespeare’s texts. 

Some of the cast are particularly excellent. Dewi Hughes’ Trinculo is flamboyant and prissy; his attempts to tolerate Stephano and Caliban are utterly joyous. Alex Vendittelli’s camp Sebastian elicits belly laughs from bitchy looks and dry delivery, even when forgetting lines. Laurie Stevens’ Miranda’s innocence and joy is lovely, but she’s not all perfect – there’s a teenaged stroppiness she takes on around her mother. 

The company as a whole handles the space particularly well, and is largely confident enough to employ direct address to the audience. The design elements do little to add detail – the music and sound design it too repetitive. The costumes are rather generic, though at least the design is consistent and appropriate to the world of the play. Lighting could have been used to create more environmental contrast.

As the Salon:collective is a training body for actors, it’s understandable that their focus is on enabling their students to grow. The trouble is that this process doesn’t always make the most compelling of performances. This version of The Tempest, no doubt a brilliant challenge for the cast, is too long and often arduous for the audience.

The Tempest runs through 15 January.

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