Ever since watching Twelfth Night at the Young Vic in 2018, I’ve been telling anyone who will listen that the ideal format for any Shakespeare adaptation is a 90-minute musical. Wildcard Theatre’s fabulous, flirty, slightly-too-long production of The Tempest is clear vindication of that belief: a talented cast take us on a high-spec, high-camp, gig-theatre frolic, complete with original music, cabaret seating, and aerial acrobatics. The costumes are bold and loud: big colourful coats, elaborate geometric make-up, and some shockingly ugly trainers. It’s giving rave culture, it’s giving Pride, it’s giving the Capitol villains from the Hunger Games. Yes, it’s occasionally a little incoherent but it’s a good time.
Ruby Crepin-Glyne and Tashinga Bepete are charming as the guileless and passionate romantic leads, with sufficient chemistry to carry off “love at first sight”, whilst Kate Littlewood gives a solemn, traditional performance as a controlling, manipulative Prospero who is beginning to lose his edge. The approach is incongruous, but it works. Prospero barely fits in the new, young world. When Prospero and Miranda talk to each another, it’s stagey and performative: they look out at the audience rather than at each other, and the father-daughter bond never feels that strong. Prospero is visibly acting not from love for Miranda, but from knowledge that her good marriage will mean his return to favour.
The three clowns, Ben Simon, Gigi Zahir, and Eleanor House, are uproariously funny, and they have an excellent back-and-forth with Alexander Bean as a booming, lively Caliban. Caliban is treated with dignity by the production, if not by Prospero and the clowns, and we feel how deeply he has been wronged. His star turn is a defiant and catchy grime track celebrating his newfound freedom. It’s comfortably the best song of the evening, and I seriously hope it will become available online.
The audience’s firm favourite though is Zahir, who gives a memorable performance as a drag queen iteration of Trinculo, the king’s jester. This production has some of the best-received clowning in any Shakespeare I have seen, liberally peppered with modern gags, although some do fall a little flat for me (“Shutteth the fucketh upeth” or repeating, “What the Puck?” are not exactly the height of comedy). But actors carry them off with style, energy, and infectious enthusiasm.
The cast play a dazzling array of musical instruments to produce a mish-mash of different moods and styles. And while only Caliban’s triumphant freedom-song stands out as great in its own right, everything else does work reasonably well. In fact there could have been more set-piece musical songs, with fewer interludes of generically haunting music or overwhelming sound choices.
I definitely do not recommend this show if you have photosensitive epilepsy, or if you are easily overwhelmed by flashing lights or loud sounds. The repeated bright flashing of lights on and off with breath-taking speed is powerful, drawing the audience into the fear and confusion of the storm. But eventually this continual assault loses its power and only distracts. It feels like they are carried away by the capabilities of the space available. It would have been better to scale back a bit to let the story breathe.
This is not a production for those who like their Shakespeare traditional or civilised or bemoan the idea that the Bard should be made “woke”. For the rest of us, it’s queer, it’s loud, it’s brash, it’s juvenile, it’s in-your-face. And it’s a damn good show.
Written by: William Shakespeare
Adaptation & lyrics by: James Meteyard
Directed by: James Meteyard
Composition by: Jasmine Morris
Designer: Luke W. Robson
Sound designer: Daniel Balfour
Lighting designer: Sherry Coenen
Produced by: WIldcard Theatre
The Tempest will play at The Pleasance until 3 April. Further information and booking via the below link.