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Theater Review (London): The Tempest at the Cock Tavern Theatre, Kilburn

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The names are familiar, more or less. The plot is that familiar mix of slapstick, farce, and dramatic magic. Yes this is certainly The Tempest, but it’s the Bard’s work with a twist: the embittered exiled former ruler of Milan is a duchess, not a duke.

For this is a woman’s world – the rulers, the sailors, the court are all female. The only male presence is that of Mirundo: the soft, tender, virgin flesh being offered here for a mother’s own purposes is male.

It’s an ambitious attempt by the young Good Night Out Presents company in the debuting venue of the Cock Tavern Theatre to find something new in the familiar. If the alchemy doesn’t entirely come off, it’s still a brave and interesting effort.

The greatest fault lies perhaps in the enormous ask being made of Prospera (Karen Paullada). To call on a young and inexperienced actor to play an embittered matriarch wielding magical powers who gradually rediscovers her humanity is asking rather a lot. Much more might be done too with Bella Westgarth’s Gonzalina in attempting to convey some real sense of age.

In the early part of the play I found myself almost grasping something deeper and more difficult in the work of adapter and director Simon Beyer – asking if it was me or society that was finding a “female Prospero” difficult? That’s not, however, a question that this production manages to sustain.

It also never really comes to terms with the problem of Caliban – not that now, with our modern-day attitudes towards disability and disadvantage, there is, perhaps, any solution to Caliban. She’s played here by Clare Cameron with energy and presence, but lacking in either malevolence or a real ability to evoke pity.

But there’s much to admire in this production. Take Natasha James’ lithe, skittish, kittenish Arielle. James effortlessly dominates the stage with her controlled, trembling, hopeful energy, and an imaginative staging that makes full use of the cramped space allows her a full range of bodily expression.

The lone male actor, Adam Glass, is admirably undaunted by his isolation, conveying without a trace of inhibition the sudden sexual awakening of a youth kept unnaturally long in innocent childhood. The Juno scene, with the uninhibited goddess sexuality playing out before the trembling young couple, is particularly powerful in its sexual politics.

It’s also great to see female actors allowed the joy of playing two of the great Shakespearean clown roles. Jane Bowhay as Stephanie and Hannah Wood as Trincula manage beautifully the concentrated slapstick of the encounter with Caliban (Clare Cameron) and the enthusiastic roistering that follows.

Indeed, the youthful enthusiasm of the young cast — almost all new acting graduates — is perhaps a little monotonous, but that does add a real feel of Jacobean England — a boys’ company that might then have played it thus. (The pub theatre setting — reminiscent in its makeshift make-do of the early theatre of the coaching inn — amplifies that effect: and on opening night the period feel was added to by the intrusion of a drunk from the bar downstairs, which the actors ignored with admirable sang-froid.)

There might be a big reversal here, but you feel like Shakespeare himself would be at home in this production, would even relish its central conceit. And that’s a pretty good reason to see this inventive Tempest.

The Tempest continues at the Cock Tavern Theatre until March 7. Tickets: £10.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.