Friday, 14 August 2009

Tempest in a Teacup - Side by Side Theatre, Edinburgh Fringe

Tempest in a Teacup
Director: Sue Wallin
Reviewer: Deborah Klayman

Fringe Rating: Five Stars

During the Edinburgh Festival you are always looking for the hidden gems, the shows you don’t plan to see that turn out to be truly wonderful - this is one of those shows.

Using Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ as a basis, Side By Side Theatre Company have taken the text and interpreted it through mime, dance and dialogue to capture and communicate the essence of the play. The performers, who all have learning disabilities, are consumate professionals and you would struggle to find a more committed cast and crew amongst the thousands in Edinburgh this month. Susan Rachel Wallin, their Artistic Director, formed the company 12 years ago, and the group have purposely stayed away from the ‘issues’ theatre that is expected of them, choosing instead to harness their abilities rather than their challenges to produce fun, award-winning theatre.

In this version of the tale Prospero is a disgraced MP, sent into exile by his brother Antonio, Prime Minister Alona, and her sister Sabrina. With the help of Ariel, a being made up of light captured from a standard lamp, the sorcerer plots his revenge against his brother and his cohorts for unseating him 12 years earlier, and stranding him and his daughter Miranda on a magical island. Summoning a tempest by brewing his magic in a giant teacup of the kitchen table, Prospero shipwrecks the MPs on the island. Ferdinand (Alona’s son) is separated from the main group and eventually meets and falls in love with Miranda – meanwhile Prospero’s servant, Caliban, befriends the drunken Trinculo and Stephano, and they search the house whilst drinking copious amounts of wine and cider. On another part of the island, Sabrina goads Antonio to usurp Alona’s power as he did Prospero’s. All the characters are finally brought together, and seeing his daughter in love Prospero is moved to forgive Alona and the others, and arranges for them all to leave the island and return home. Caliban goes with them, and Ariel is freed.

Having begun with a monochrome set, various colours, costumes and props are introduced to the space during the piece, bringing with them a sense of the extraordinary and supernatural that is at the heart of the play. The flashback to Prospero and Miranda’s exile is cleverly told through use of simple film and narration (a film shot by one of the cast members) and later there are projections on the screen. The choreography of the ensemble numbers is simple and effective, and the solo dances devised by the cast members. The confidence and concentration shown by this multi-talented cast was overwhelming at times, and there was many a misty eye in the audience by the end.

Although a company piece, there are also some stand out individual performances. Theresa Byrne’s Ariel, shining head to toe in sparkly fabric and mask - the very embodiment of light - is also light on her feet, moving gracefully to plead and play with Prospero, then menacing the strangers with a monstrous mask as the harpy. David Atkins is confident and expressive as the love-struck Ferdinand, and the scenes between him and Sarah Field’s Miranda were both funny and tender.

The drunken adventures of Stephano and Trinculo are hilarious, and offer beautiful counterpoint to the political machinations of Antonio and Sabrina, and Prospero and Ariel’s magical mischief . Stephano (Paul Taylor) has great comic timing and confidence in spades, while Toby Shaw’s Trinculo is acted with aplomb.

But most of all, Mark Slater’s Prospero is a triumph. The character with the most lines of text of any in Shakespeare’s cannon is presented here without any words at all, using only mime, movement and magic to effect and entrance the audience. Equally he shines as Antonio, Prospero’s devious brother, adding versatility to his many strengths.

The real heart of the piece, and the company itself, is the strength of the ensemble. The storm, the robots tempting the MPs with food, ‘The Prospero Magic Show’ and the finale involve the whole cast who work together as one unit, where necessary guiding each other, and always with the same sense of fun that made them choose this play. The production is superb regardless of that fact that the cast are disabled, but the fact that they are and have overcome their challenges to perform it makes experiencing it even more special - a truly outstanding production.

Augustine’s, 41 George IV Bridge, 11-15 Aug, 11:45 (13:15), £7:00 (£6:00) - More info click here
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