What comes after The Tempest? For Shakespeare, it is commonly believed, no other works and for many readers and students, real life. The Tempest has been for a long time a mainstay on school curriculums and, for those who pursue studying and working outside of the arts – confining reading fiction to beach holidays perhaps – it is part of a set of ‘end of school days’ memories. As I sat waiting for This Last Tempest to begin, I could overhear several conversations excitedly reminiscing about who-played-who in various school productions. The Tempest is one of those texts that inspires either fond reminiscences or shudders of horror as people recall the first, last and only time in their lives they were forced to wade through a Shakespeare play before being left alone to pursue A level Business Studies and Physics, never looking back after leaving the island with Prospero, Miranda and Ferdinand.
These legions of students and theatregoers who spend short spells on the island could indeed be known by the same name as one of the production’s companies – Uninvited Guests – and the opportunity to wonder at what happens next after both they and the characters depart for Naples is an enticing one. This is where This Last Tempest picks up, both taking the story forwards in time and re-telling parts of the original narrative through the perspectives of Caliban and Ariel. Suddenly free from the commands of Prospero and their second-class position in relation to Shakespeare’s main characters, the spirit and the beast are less elated and – particularly in the case of Ariel – more forlorn, down-beat and troubled by their pasts. The costumes and scenery are particularly beautiful and the encompassing music and sound effects drench the audience with coastal aromatics. The evolving storyline is full of the sweetness of two lost souls finding each other and concludes dallying with the idea of a Brave New World.
Seeing a production or artwork that feels half-baked is always particularly depressing, and This Last Tempest is nothing if not dense, immersive and the obvious outcome of people really investing in the story and the production. However – try as I might – I couldn’t quite get on board with the show. Of the limited dialogue, too much was borrowed verbatim from the original and then delivered in a “Remember when so-and-so said this and then so-and-so replied…” which felt unnecessary given that audience members are either likely to know the text really well already and therefore not need it repeating or not know it at all, whereupon all this intertextuality patch-working would be lost on them. The character of Ariel was also ultimately too irritating – the pinching scene made me viscerally irate – and the chance for the character to be fully explored when Caliban questioned why, if the spirit was so powerful, it wasn’t able to prevent any of their previous trials occurring, was brushed over much too fast.
So much of this production was up there with the best – costumes, sound and a beautiful idea – but it never truly let loose (‘Let the pig out!’ as Tongue Fu would say) and perhaps this was because, ironically, it was trying a bit too hard to do exactly that. In the same fashion, Kneehigh can sometimes fail to really provide this super-immersive, high-voltage experience precisely because from the outset they intend to blow your mind like never before. At the heart of this production was a tale of love emerging out of hurt and enslavement to create a new way of being, yet this essentially quiet and soft narrative was lost amongst the crashing hysteria of wave noises and the tempest – exactly what the show and its characters were meant to be escaping.
Despite the criticism, this production did succeed in another way. And that was in being unashamedly off-the-wall bonkers, and probably to a degree even the cast didn’t fully intend. It’s beautiful to see a production that is carries on for so long making noises with bits of wood that audience members get up and leave in mindfuck confusion. I liked that it got under people’s skin, including my own, and that even whilst failing in some respects, it did so in truly spectacular style.