Review: The Tempest at The Rose Playhouse

That theatre has a gender problem shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. A study conducted by the British Theatre Consortium and Society of London Theatre published last year showed that plays by women made up just 31% of new productions, with even fewer revivals or adaptations. Research by Tonic Theatre in 2014 showed that women accounted for only 37% of artistic directors of the 179 theatres and companies that get core funding from the Arts Council, dropping to 24% in those receiving more than £500,000. In reaction to the stats, and also because any good actor can play any part, there has been a greater frequency of gender-blind casting over the last few years (see Maxine Peak as Hamlet, Glenda Jackson as Lear, and most recently Tamsin Greig as Malvolia in Twelfth Night to name but a few). Doing her part to redress the balance is Sue Frumin, Artistic Director of Sea Change Theatre. Her adaptation of The Tempest at The Rose Playhouse features an all-female cast and crew, and a refiguring of Prospero from island patriarch to matriarch.

There’s no doubt that it’s exciting to see so many women on stage at once, playing both male and female roles just as all-male casts would have done before the Reformation. It’s particularly stirring to witness the re-balance against the backdrop of the dank and soupy archaeological site of The Rose Theatre. In switching Prospero’s gender, Frumin challenges the power-strata of the play. She also metatheatrically challenges the existing power strata of the theatre world in general: Prospero is often taken to be a self-reflexive representation of Shakespeare as an artist, and in making Prospero a woman, Frumin comments on her own gender as writer and artistic director.

Some effort is made to challenge other gender-stereotypes within the play. As Shakespeare wrote it, the only two female characters within the narrative are the butter-would-melt virgin Miranda, and the villainous old hag Sycorax. In this re-imagining, we get a powerful woman driving the action, and also, thanks to Ray Malone’s direction, a re-characterisation of Miranda, who sheds her pure image as she seduces Ferdinand, legs open as she crawls before him to the Little Willie John song ‘Fever’.

Sadly though, despite a peppering of good ideas, the production feels half-baked. Prospero’s gender-switch increases the audience’s sensitivity to potential re-genderings of other characters, but while some are more androgynous than others, the fact that some men are in beards while others aren’t is confusing. If the fact that Ferdinand, for example, presents as rather more feminine than the rest of the male characters is a hint at homosociality, Malone’s direction just doesn’t make it clear enough.

The production in general is in need of tightening. The acting wasn’t always totally convincing, with a few stumbled-over lines jarring the audience out of the world of the play and back into the room. Attempts at using image projection could have been more successful had they not been manipulated by the director on stage in plain clothes – even an all-black costume would have helped. There were also a few moments during which the audience was able to hear whispers from backstage, a particular lowlight of which was a glitch in the music during Miranda’s sensual dance which was accompanied by an audible tut from the sound guy.

Thankfully, there were some really strong performances to keep up the momentum. Marianne Hyatt is a confident and commanding Prospero, while Lottie Vallis as Caliban was totally committed, tempering her hisses of reptilian menace with brittle-as-a-twig fragility. Gerry Bell and Vix Dillon as Trinculo and Stephano were a comedic double-act, and Kimberley Jarvis gave a subtle and convincing performance as Ferdinand. The costumes too lent some professionalism to the production, in particular that of Caliban, who looked like she’d erupted from soil like a seed, and Ariel, whose light-as-air ensemble was fittingly ethereal.

Overall, this was an uneven production, moments of inspiration tempered by moments of uncertainty. A stronger vision of what the writer and director wanted to achieve would have helped. As it was, this version of the The Tempest neither felt traditional nor contemporary, rather somewhere indecisively in the middle.

Find Anna on Twitter at @annaerichmond