BLOG Alice Vernon

NWR Issue 107

This Last Tempest, Aberystwyth Arts Centre, 17 February

This Last Tempest is a story formed in the silence that follows Shakespeare’s last play. Uninvited Guests and Fuel allow the audience to linger on the island, to see Ariel and Caliban both celebrate and struggle to adapt to Prospero’s absence. This play, shown at Aberystwyth Arts Centre on 17 February, is a short but ambitiously modern re-imagining of The Tempest and its two subhuman characters.

The play involves just three actors: Ariel (Jessica Hoffmann), Caliban (Richard Dufty), and the Musician (Neil Johnson). The set is almost like a child’s sand pit – it is sparse with props and relies on a more playful aspect of the imagination to believe that a handful of shells marks the island’s coast. Johnson’s Musician, barefoot and carefree, explains the premise of the production and introduces the story with an excellent performance of ‘Ariel’s Song’. He then steps aside, and the play begins with what is quite possibly the biggest and most threatening cloud of dry ice I have ever experienced in theatre.

The relationship between Ariel and Caliban is constantly shifting between tender and turbulent. Hoffmann makes a proud, solemn Ariel, and Dufty’s Caliban is a shaggy, boorish creature. Their behaviour is sometimes touchingly child-like, and it often feels as though you are watching two toddlers squabbling over a game. At other points, it morphs into domestic territory, then into something not unlike two drunk students. The audience, however, is always made to be aware that these two characters are far from humanity. Ariel and Caliban spend the duration striving to understand their position, that the freedom they yearned to have is not as golden as they dreamed, and, mostly, to understand each other.

The play’s finale arrives in the form of a tempest brought about by Ariel and Caliban. Whilst the production had previously employed music and sound to great effect, it is in this act that the use of sampled, building noise is a true highlight. Somewhere between Stomp and an apocalyptic dance party in a zoo, Ariel and Caliban create a gathering storm using microphones cleverly hidden in stage props. Caliban thumps a rock into the ground to produce a thunderous, echoing beat while Ariel gargles water into a hollow log. At first, the sounds are tentative and experimental, but as the two gain confidence and fall into an animalistic trance, the noise gains depth and force. It is an auditory experience that is executed with skill. I must say, however, that my heart sank at the sight of another giant, all-consuming cloud of dry ice, soon accompanied by ferocious strobe lights. I relished the phenomenal sound the actors were making, and the smoke did provide another dimension to the atmosphere, but my eyes were beginning to stream and the strobe effect made me a little uncomfortable after a few seconds. Nevertheless, the sudden silence after the utter chaos of the storm was chillingly effective.

This Last Tempest is unapologetic in its challenge of theatrical conventions. Uninvited Guests really push the boundaries of what is possible for such a small cast and sparse set to create. There were a few occasions where it didn’t quite work – a rock passed to the audience at the start caused a few minutes of awkward confusion while the Musician trawled through the rows trying to find it again at the end of the play. Whilst it was admirable to involve the audience in this way, it dragged away the sense of immersion the play had otherwise successfully built.

As an alternative theatre experience, a unique and ambitious take on Shakespeare’s work, This Last Tempest should be celebrated. It questions freedom, not only within Ariel and Caliban, but also within the art of theatre production.

Alice Vernon is a MA student of Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University.


previous blog: Mary Lloyd Jones in Aberystwyth
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