Giles Woodforde heads up north to catch the Oxford Playhouse’s co-production of the Bard’s classic Tempest

This new joint Oxford Playhouse, Northern Stage, and Improbable Theatre production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest throws up a full-scale, Force 10 storm right from the start, just one of a series of spectacular scenic effects by designer Becs Andrews.

Once the storm has passed, Tyrone Huggins’s Prospero starts to show his tender side as he develops his relationships with his daughter Miranda (Jade Ogugua), and with feisty Ariel (Eileen Walsh), who personifies the description “free spirit” as she leaps about the stage.

There’s a telling scene when Prospero encourages the romantic attraction between Miranda and Ferdinand (Christopher Price), son of the King of Naples. The effect is that of a benevolent football manager supervising his team from the dugout.

All of this plays to Huggins’s strengths as an actor. He delights in pointing up the ever-shifting nature of relationships between different generations, as he showed in his own play The Honey Man, staged at the Pegasus earlier this year. His Prospero can, and does, raise his voice when tearing his daughter – and other characters – off a strip, but Huggins’s warm voice and manner suggests a man whose anger is quickly spent, and who certainly doesn’t bear grudges.

Also present on the desert island are a pair of drunks, Stephano (Tony Bell – a veteran of many a Propeller Shakespeare production at the Playhouse), and Trinculo (Hannah McPake, in a trousers role), who conspire with a rather less evil than usual Caliban (Peter Peverley).

Director Phelim McDermott has given the drunks free reign to act as a most effective knockabout comedy duo as part of his unusual method of rehearsing the production – the actors began by absorbing their lines from a recording, rather than mugging them up from a script.

“This open and fluid way of working reveals a myriad of possible interpretations,” McDermott says in a programme note. In practice, his method resulted in excellent interaction and body language, but a curious lack of connection with the audience.

But, fair’s fair, I saw The Tempest as an early performance in Newcastle. By now the production’s rich visual and musical atmosphere (there’s a splendidly eerie score by Brendan Murphy) will, no doubt, have been complemented by an equal level of dramatic power.


* Oxford Playhouse until October 24.
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