Inspired by Paul Gauguin’s time in Tahiti, Tom Littler’s streamlined staging of The Tempest maroons its characters on an island in the South Pacific rather than the Med.
Having played every other great Shakespearean role during his distinguished career, Michael Pennington is finally tackling Prospero. It’s worth the wait. In a sonorous and compelling performance, his delivery remains unwaveringly lucid as the former Duke of Milan who exacts revenge on his treacherous brother – and usurper – Antonio.
The rest of the cast is no less impressive: Whitney Kehinde’s captivating Ariel is ablaze with energy. Kirsty Bushell’s Miranda is forthright in her pursuit of the naive, pyjama-clad Ferdinand – Tam Williams, who also plays wretched Caliban. The inspired doubling continues with Peter Bramhill as Sebastian/Trinculo and Richard Derrington as Antonio/Stephano, their alternating scenes deftly drawing the play’s intertwined murderous and comic plotlines.
Under William Reynolds’ balmy lighting, billowing curtains evoke the sails of a storm-tossed ship and form a backdrop with a Gauguin sketch in Neil Irish and Anett Black’s set, which furnishes Prospero’s island home with eclectic trinkets lining eccentric, whorling wooden shelves. Max Pappenheim’s sound design convincingly brings to life both the titular tempest and the eerie dream-world of the enchanted isle.
While this version doesn’t particularly address the theme of colonialism that has preoccupied modern critics – here, Prospero’s reign over the island seems a result of his supernatural powers rather than an assumed right to rule – its narrative threads tie up with pleasing clarity.
Ultimately, Pennington delivers an intriguingly nuanced take on one of Shakespeare’s most enigmatic characters, bolstered by a well-observed ensemble.