Royal Exchange Young Company.
15 August 2018.
Closed for the summer, and largely deserted, North Manchester’s Abraham Moss School seems an unlikely substitute for the island setting of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. There’s something happening in the hall, but it’s not clear what. Are we being asked our names at the door or is a register being taken? Is this a school assembly or are we gathering for a journey? Notes are passed around and things are whispered. A woman is calling our names out from the stage – however ‘Ma’am’ isn’t a headteacher, she is Prospero and she has a story to tell and plans to set in action.
It becomes clear that the building’s inhabitants aren’t here willingly, and most are seeking escape, this is a place apart where the wider world is not in reach. It is recognisably a school, but the goings-on within it are strange and unpredictable.
Despite intimations of the supernatural, the inhabitants of this place have their feet firmly planted on the ground, and you are more likely to find magic in geeky quirkiness than sorcery. So airy spirit Ariel has shrugged on an anorak and multiplied sevenfold to become a cluster of techy nerds – all ready to do Prospero’s bidding with their high spec kit. Similarly, when an imaginary feast is required, it is conjured up with contemporary Instagram-style foodie images illuminated on canteen trays, while characters salivate over a stream of admiring hashtags.
There are occasional nods to the school setting with a royal entourage dressed as if ready for a prom, Prospero’s voice on the tannoy system, food trickery in the canteen and a buzzer signalling the play’s end. Yet, the location never feels intrinsic to the production and while there are allusions to it being a place of self-discovery, ever-changing alliances and transition (where its inhabitants, just as those who find themselves on Shakespeare’s island, are destined to leave and move on) such parallels are never laboured over.
Designer Naomi Kuyck-Cohen, who worked wonders with a carpet and some boxes in the Royal Exchange’s recent The Greatest Play in the History of the World, would seem a smart choice to transform the utilitarian location into something more intriguing. There are clever details that repay close attention. For the final scenes, we arrive to find tables littered with upturned empty bottles and plates scattered with a few crumbs – the party it would seem is over. Corridors walls are plastered with photocopies of ‘inspirational’ statements such as “Your not defined by your past. You are prepared by your past” or “Never let your fear decide your fate“. As we venture deeper into the building, the signs are less tidy, and become ripped and torn apart. Other pieces of paper appear, showing days being marked off one by one. Is school not to everyone’s liking or is Caliban charting her days of enslavement?
Kuyck-Cohen has fun too. Two young lovers grapple playfully on a Twister mat and there’s a quick glimpse of The Ariels’ CCTV ‘control room’, all littered with pizza boxes like a student’s bedroom. Too often, however, the scale and blandness of the school’s spaces seem to overpower the production’s attempts to transform them. Even Oliver Vibrans’ gorgeously eerie and other-worldly sound design suffers within the unforgiving acoustics.
The overcast sky may have seemed a fitting touch for the opening night of The Tempest, however (despite this being Manchester) the sudden downpour seemed to catch the production team out. Planned outdoor sequences were hastily rearranged, under shelter or indoors, and these last-minute adjustments unsettled things slightly. Even making allowances for this, it was evident that the logistics of moving a large audience around the tight spaces hasn’t been properly thought through. Despite the heroic efforts of the team of industrious Spirits who swiftly and reassuringly usher the crowd, the constant herding around the building becomes tedious and on occasion there are too many people in too small a space. This does a disservice to the performers. So, half the audience must stare at a pillar in a packed corridor, while on the other side of it Miranda and Ferdinand share a wonderfully tender moment to the delight of those who can see it.
While director Nickie Miles-Wildin and her production team seem to be fighting a losing battle with the constraints of the Abraham Moss School building, they emerge victorious from their engagement with the notoriously tricky Bard. The company adapt and adjust Shakespeare’s Tempest to suit their purposes. Speeches are shuffled and shared around, familiar words appear at unexpected junctures and youthful liberties are taken with events. Here, the King of Naples and the Duke of Milan are not delivered to Prospero’s grasp via a storm-tossed shipwreck but abducted in the back of a Mobile Disco. As befits a Tempest that blows through the corridors of this world, Miranda is no longer the sole female character, Prospero and Antonio are a pair of feuding sisters and ‘the witch’ Sycorax has given birth to a daughter, Caliban.
If you don’t know the story you may occasionally wonder what is going on, but the company’s breezy confidence with the story-telling (and the text) keeps it all on track. The exuberant, swaggering interactions between Adam Hussain’s Trinculo, Kenan Vurgun’s Stephano and Rebecca Xuan Le’s Caliban enliven proceedings. While Terri Donovan and Aidan Feely bring a lovely gentle innocence to Miranda and Ferdinand’s courtship. Even though the production’s Ariel is a busy multi-faced entity, there are hints at their complex bond with their mistress Prospero – especially when Annie Rogers’ Ariel asks her, with an arresting depth of emotion, “do you love me?”.
With her calmly commanding performance, Sara Abanur’s Prospero is the show’s dominating presence – articulate, self-assured and watchful. In striking contrast, Xuan-Le’s Caliban (sporting football top and trackie bottoms) feels wretched, a social outcast. There is no trace of the character’s traditional monstrousness. Held against her will, and exploited by Prospero, Caliban is angry and sullen – yet Xuan-Le’s measured and unassuming performance signals a concealed vulnerability, a young person awkward and damaged.
A huge celebration brings everything to a close. While everyone is enjoying themselves Caliban wanders sullenly through the crowd, forced to collect rubbish. Love and reconciliation are in plentiful supply but Miles-Wildin’s production also emphasises a world of winners and losers, power games and social injustice. Abanur’s Prospero bids farewell with a joyful speech rejoicing in the rich wonders of the world, and she sweeps out followed by her family, friends and followers. Suddenly alone, Xuan-Le’s Caliban stands tall and proud. We hear her words, “this island’s mine”, but they are undercut by the sight of the bin she is clutching – before her “brave new world” can come to fruition, she must firstly deal with the mess her oppressors have left behind.