As the sun begins to set over Hove Green, tinnies of Red Stripe are cracked open, tartan blankets are strewn, and families tuck into their picnic hampers. It’s an unusual sight for a theatre auditorium and the evening is an example of how Brighton Festival is continuing to push the boundaries of what the arts can be and who gets to be a part of them.
Amidst countless flashy and innovative new interpretations of Shakespeare’s classics, the Lord Chamberlains Men made a strong case for presenting the mystical tale of The Tempest in all its original glory. With an all-male, multi-roling, Elizabethan dress-clad cast, and a fierce allegiance to the Bard’s script, this was Shakespeare as it was meant to be seen. Gathered in an intimate semi-circle in the open air of BOAT (Brighton Open Air Theatre) at dusk, sunglasses gently displaced by throws and hoodies, the magic and communal joy of Shakespeare was more tangible than ever.
The performance was brought to life with heavy percussion simulating the titular storm, and heaps of song and dance that were funny, but also highly uplifting. Opting for The Tempest allowed the cast to delve into the silliness and fun at the heart of many of Shakespeare’s texts. The elvish Ariel glides across the stage, lulling the islanders with his pipe. The romance between Miranda and Ferdinand is not quite as lovely as it is absurd, the actors embracing the hyperbole of the text with an infatuated stupidity. The jester, Trinculo’s, and drunkard, Stephano’s absurd interactions with the native Caliban capture the slapstick comedy of the play that has withstood centuries.
It’s a comfort to think that it is with this raucous hilarity that the audience’s many children will come to identify Shakespeare, rather than as a dusty, unintelligible set text they will be forced to agonise over at GCSE. It’s particularly refreshing to see the cast reclaim the humour of so many lines lost to pretentiously quotable, meaningless severity: “hell is empty and all the devils are here!” cackles Ariel, mimicking the cowardly quivering of the young Prince Ferdinand.
Having studied the ruthless patriarchy and colonialism of The Tempest at university last year, the Lord Chamberlains Men’s authenticity perhaps had all the ammunition to anger a leftie academic like myself. In fact, the honesty it portrayed was as enlightening as any contemporary spin on the classic might have been. Prospero as a weathered, silver-bearded patriarch – and not Helen Mirren, as Julie Taymar’s 2010 feature film cast – offered a very real insight to the play, and ultimately it was up to the audience to decide to what extent he was a respectful hero or a vengeful colonialist conqueror. Perhaps Shakespeare’s mix of being politically-astute and yet curiously non-didactic, is what has allowed his masterpieces to so withstand the test of time.