'This Last Tempest' review or 'Is there a (new) draft coming in?'

This Last Tempest, Uninvited Guests and Fuel
Battersea Arts Centre, 23rd March 2016

‘This Last Tempest’ is packed full of rather beautiful reversals; it’s a backward glance that allows us to see things differently. The show begins where Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ left off, with Prospero disappearing over the horizon and his epilogue ringing in our ears (‘Let your indulgence set me free.’) Only Caliban and Ariel remain on the island and, in this subtle and probing show (from Uninvited Guests and Fuel) they attempt to find a place for themselves in a strange new world, which sees them free from Prospero’s rule and dark and domineering magic.

Director Paul Clarke has created a stage space full of gaps – holes that Caliban and Ariel are now free to fill at will. The floor is coloured neon green and reminds one of the special effects green screen used in film; it’s the promise of magic without any of the tricks layered on top. The rest of the props suggest a half-completed design: scattered logs lie on the ground and shards of scaffolding climb up the centre of the stage. This is a set that puts the power in the actors’ hands; a world in which the puppet master has disappeared and it’s down to those left behind to pull the strings.

It’s a super thoughtful set up and a lovely, nudging stage space, which hums with an ambiguity that is threaded right through the script, performances and costumes. Richard Dufty’s Caliban – so often a slobbering figure of fun in traditional ‘Tempest’ productions – wears a short fur coat, his belly exposed above his jeans. He is a fairly straight-forward chap except when howling with relief at his new found freedom (‘Yes, yes, yes!’). Jessica Hoffmann’s Ariel wears a white-studded suit, with feathers that spray out around her neck. She looks like a fairy with 50% of magic missing. Singer and guitarist Neil Johnson dons a sparkly jacket and ruffle collar (‘Think of me as a Jacobean musician – if that helps’) and loses himself in his gentle performances, always with one eye on the audience.   

Paul Clarke’s production dips in and out of itself and the actors are careful not to let the audience lose themselves in the magic of theatre. It is as if, without Prospero, the full theatrical illusion cannot and should not be cast. There are just a few moments when the knowingness and irony – and the constant nods out to the audience - drop away. In one gorgeous scene, Johnson plays a bewitching guitar solo as Ariel hooks herself onto a trapeze and floats, back and forth, through the air. It’s impossible to tell if she is trapped or free. That scene alone throbs with a hard-earned ambiguity, as if all of Shakespeare’s texts are suddenly, dangerously free.  

There are other tender, textured moments. Caliban and Ariel touch each other and feed each other berries, but it isn’t long before these acts of gentleness become confused and cruel. It is so interesting to watch these two struggle to define themselves and establish their own limits in the absence of a master.

All of this adds up to a show that feels very gentle and careful and –at moments – touchingly lost. It is a softly provocative production (except for a final mental blow-out) – but ‘This Last Tempest’ rarely feels like more than a reflection on other shows and other, bigger ideas. There is a tagged on speech at the end, during which Caliban urges us to ‘conjure a vision of a brave new world’, which feels much too explicit and loud. I left happily bathing in the production’s quieter moments – not inspired, then, to forge a brave new world but very happy to temporarily inhabit the gentle, sparkling spaces this show creates.