This production of The Tempest hit stormy seas just a few days before the opening night, when the actress who was due to play the pivotal role as Prospero, had to step down due to unexpected personal events.
The decision to cast a woman in the part is not unprecedented – it has notably been played by both Vanessa Redgrave and Helen Mirren – but it was an exciting concept for this forward thinking theatre group from north west London.
Director Emma Gersch and her team began a frantic search for a replacement Prospero and came up with the experienced actor Alan Cox, who has a fine theatrical pedigree with the Royal Shakespeare Company among others, and who faultlessly remembered the lines he learned for a production at London’s Barbican Theatre.
Thus, the essence of the piece underwent a dramatically late change and undoubtedly suffered as a result. But we are still left with atmospheric theatre thanks to Matthew Reeve in particular who composed and devised an exotically weird soundtrack woven with breaking waves, and the crashing thunder of electronic storms.
Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, has been cast adrift with his daughter Miranda (Sophie Spreadbury) and washes up on an island inhabited by the monstrous son of a witch, Caliban, superbly played by Tom Pritchard, with a big voice and presence.
The duke does have an ally in the form of the “delicate” and “dainty” Ariel, (Alex Rand) and a trio of mermaid-like spirits, (Beck Rogers, Megan Pitt and Alison Tennant) plus the helping hand of courtier Gonzalo, (Osvaldo Iturriaga) who supplied them with books and rations to survive on the island for the past 12 years.
During that time, Prospero has surrounded himself with charms and sits upon a yogic mat to meditate on revenge, finally raising a sea storm to sink a passing boat full of his enemies, who will find themselves under his power when they swim ashore.
Designer Kate Unwin ensures that this ship-wrecked Mafioso from Milan and Naples is well-tailored in dapper Italian suits and shoes, contrasting with the wild, bounding figure of Caliban, who is wrapped in hessian sacking and fish nets.
Here, the plot thickens when Prospero’s brother, Antonio (Oliver Hewett) conspires with Sebastian (Joe Stuckey) to kill the King of Naples, (Niall Murray) and the conniving Caliban pals up with a drunken steward from the court (Dan Mullins) and Jester (Christopher York) to see off Prospero, amusingly finding themselves in the island spa, wrapped in fluffy towelling bathrobes and wearing eye masks.
Meanwhile, the King’s son Ferdinand (Billy Coughlin) has been promised to Miranda and Prospero begins to consider that forgiveness might be a better option than revenge.
And so the plotters weather the storm, as does this comparatively new theatre group, and we are left to meditate on what might have been if they had not experienced a last-minute drama of their own.