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The Tempest, Watford Palace Theatre

William Shakespeare

Directed by James Williams
★★★
Pros: A high-energy, creative take on Shakespeare for the whole family.
Cons: Drastic script cuts sometimes lead to confusion.
Our Verdict: A family-friendly, mostly accessible version of Shakespeare with a multi-talented cast and a clever design.
Courtesy of Watford Palace Theatre
It’s no secret that Shakespeare can be difficult and inaccessible to modern audiences – and not just for young people who are still mastering language and poetry, but for the rest of us as well. The convoluted mazes of language and the sixteen thousand characters that can appear throughout a typical three hour Shakespearian piece can be overwhelming for everyone. By stripping Shakespeare’s magical comedy The Tempest back into an hour-long version, Watford Palace’s adaptation seeks to open the doors to Shakespeare for all – and there are some great successes and unfortunate failures.
First things first, the design works perfectly. Sandy beach tones with a hint of the mystical dominate the eye, and simple costumes that are easily switched add to the speed and casual air of the performance. The set is easily transformable from the sea to the forest to the shore simply by small hints, and switches between characters are made clear by small costume adjustments that easily hint at each character’s essence. The play has no specific time or place, but rather uses archetypal codes to suggest class and gender, and basic props to give audiences the necessities of what’s going on.
While costume changes do work well to distinguish the characters, there are only four actors playing a multitude of roles, and things get a little confusing at times. The small cast does a marvellous job of differentiating between the characters, but issues arise when more than four characters must be on stage at once – or when one actor plays two characters that are involved in an exchange. To solve this problem, a mirror is used. The idea itself is clever and innovative, and while I didn’t find it completely impossible to comprehend, this will be the most difficult factor for young viewers or anyone previously unfamiliar with the play to grasp. Plus, watching an actor have a conversation with himself as another character in a hand mirror is not as entertaining as a real confrontation between two different bodies – so some important moments, particularly near the end, found me zoning out.
While elements like the mirror add to a sense of convolution rather than assuaging it, other efforts are made to keep the script fresh and captivating for audiences of all ages and experience with Shakespeare. Music plays a large role in Watford’s production, and the cast all play instruments as well. Setting some of the difficult language to music keeps it interesting and vibrant, and makes this particular production unique. The songs are simple, with easy tunes that children and adults will find pleasing and will certainly snatch back in any attention that was lost for any time.
The show has been whittled down to its bare essentials, and for me, even knowing the story beforehand, this often lead to a feeling of missing something important. However, I will say that in general Watford’s production does a good job of creating an accessible, firm narrative arc, and made many smart cuts. Most of what is lost are the political intricacies the play is famous for in literary circles, and I found I didn’t miss them much. Most importantly, their adaptation makes the the story much more charming and digestible for wide audiences.
It’s a delightful piece overall, with a great ensemble and some unique gems sparkling out of the density of Shakespeare. It’s a good choice if you’re interested in classic theatre, or want to introduce your kids to it but can’t be bothered with the resulting headache of trying to connect all of the dots during or after!
Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

The Tempest will runs at the Watford Palace Theatre until 30th January 2013.
Box Office: 01923 225671 or book online at http://www.watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk/page/3087/Book-Online

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