Phelim McDermott’s production of The Tempest opened with the tone of a classical text being interpreted with a wry smile. The cast came on stage, surrounded a washing machine, and a box of Ariel was produced to a wave of titters from the audience. As the start button was pushed, an on-stage storm began to brew, and the set was revealed to be piles upon mounds upon heaps of clothes, a multi-coloured frenzy of disorder and beauty. The sails of the ship were billowing clothes lines pulled hither and thither by the desperate sailors, who were dressed in pure white and harshly distinguished against the bright spectrum of their surroundings. They emerge from the storm with their ‘sustaining garments fresher than before’, and it becomes clear where the washing cycle and clothing motif has emerged from. The storm served as a cleansing process, and the characters have survived the tempest in order to be hung out to dry by Prospero.
The set and music really were the stars of the show in this production. The live music performed by Brendan Murphy used singing glasses of water underlit by sparkling spotlights, creating an ethereal, tropical soundscape for this brave new world. When Prospero forced Ariel to remember her tortuous existence under the wrath of the cruel Sycorax, the witch’s steely blue eyes became a ghostly presence on stage through the use of spotlights, bathing Ariel in a gaze she would rather forget. The piles of clothing also served as a beautiful means for actors to hide — scenes could have been running for some minutes by the time you noticed a pair of eyes watching the action in silence, a small reflection of spectatorship, like forgotten change in the wash. The hanging spectrum of clothes lines gave the set movement and depth, although we could partially see the actors operating them. I would have preferred them to have been fully visible or not visible at all, as I found it a distraction from the effect of the lines themselves, which served as both rippling waves and rising cloud. It was also unfortunate that backstage (complete with props table and stage-hand) was visible.
Sadly, I felt that the set and music really could not rescue a show where it seems that the cast have almost been left to their own devices. Director Phelim McDermott claims to have employed a rather hands-off approach so that ‘the production of the play emerges from the company, rather than being my interpretation of how they should perform it’. The idea that direction should come organically from the actors themselves in order to produce a different experience every show is a nice one — if it had worked. Alas, the overall impression was one of incoherence. The interactions between Prospero (Tyrone Higgins) and the rest of the characters did not convince me that he had any real hold over their actions or decisions. Eileen Walsh’s depiction of Ariel was let down by the costume and make-up design, meaning she appeared as a young child rather than clever and erudite sprite.
The energy of the performance was distinctly underwhelming, probably attributable to the hollow direction rather than the cast themselves. Ultimately this was a disordered affair, a wash in which everything came out a dull shade of grey.
For more performances at the Oxford Playhouse, please visit their website.