Nick Philippou's six-year stint at the helm of Actors Touring Company has seen some inspired work (Ion and The Belle Vue, both in versions by the late Kenneth McLeish) and some, not to put too fine a point on it, tosh (The Modern Husband and Miss Julie). Reviews of the company's more recent productions Faust and Handbag suggested (although I did not see the shows) that Philippou had found another sympathetic collaborator in Mark Ravenhill. This Tempest, however, is Philippou's own baby, and it is as dire a piece of work as I have seen in a long while.
As director he follows his habitual practice of turning up the spectacle, the darkness and the sinister camp until the control knobs come off in his hand. In this case, however, rather than heightening the emotion, such a strategy strips Shakespeare's lines of all engagement. The director is, of course, commenting upon the artificiality both of Prospero's stage-management of events on the island and of theatre itself, but he does so in a manner which frankly insults performers as talented as Rose English and young Kate Alderton by requiring them to put on silly voices and speak into headset microphones so that their words are further synthetically distorted until they sound like the infant offspring of Celia Johnson and a Dalek.
Having played the artifice card, Philippou replays it again and again: to the treated voices are added video footage and live sample-and-hold video imagery, after the manner of companies such as the Wooster Group or fecund theatre. This is a three-person production, so characters and events are often represented by props on the vast illuminated tabletop on which Prospero orchestrates goings-on; the shipwrecked courtiers are symbolised by what appear to be brains in glass jars. The Stephano-Trinculo-Caliban plot is excised altogether (thank God – one shudders to think just how unfunny it could, with dedication, be made), and scenes and phrases in the main plot are intercut: Prospero literally puts words into people's mouths, speaking the lines whilst the other actors lip-synch to them, and he continually seems to loop back to the "such stuff as dreams are made on" speech. The score, which sounds like a third-rate Laurie Anderson impersonator, is provided – alas! – by Anderson herself.
A bit of Peter Greenaway, a bit of Elizabeth LeCompte, a bit of the Foucault he picked up during Faust, whole Alps of self-indulgence and, despite the technical fripperies, an utter inability to entertain the notion that he might once in a while care to deviate a little from his standard theatrical perspective: these are the ingredients of Philippou's Tempest. At eighty minutes, it's not big, and it's certainly not clever, although it thinks it is and would like us to think so as well. It is simply dreadful.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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