February 4, 2023

The Tempest: An Oxford Garden Show

Amongst the punting, the croquet and the Pimms on freshly shaven lawns, the garden show is one of those phenomenon that represents an Oxfordian summer. Classically intellectual and brimming with ‘thesps’, the audience absorbing the play whilst enclosed in cloisters, columns and clematis are immersed in a time warp; all one need do is imagine yourself in a white cotton dress or some tweed with a parasol or a pipe and as the sun sets behind the stage and the fireflies dart between the spotlights, your fingers reach for the hired blanket shortly after the interval.

Any play in Oxford takes part of its triumph from the space it works with and the experience it leaves the theatre-goer remembering; a play after all is much more than words and costumes, and setting a Shakespearean tragedy or Edwardian comedy in a garden does add a touch of class. After three weeks of consistent rain to begin my exam-free (and thus supposedly glorious) Trinity, it did seem appropriate that the first garden show of the year was The Tempest, the blustering trees of Magdalen and the whistles of the wind almost drowning out the speech in the opening scene, conveniently set during a storm. It was almost as if the weather knew that what it was faced with was a group of undergraduates, desperate for some redeeming features of a Trinity that has so far been rather miserable.

An average of three year long degrees without any sweltering quad reading or leaping into the Cherwell would leave many middle aged Oxford graduates desperately wishing that they had spent that one day of sunshine outside rather than underground amongst the dust or for modern times, the constant brain bashing alterations of Nexus… Luckily however, despite having to move the opening night into an auditorium, the rain held off for the Thursday night performance by The Magdalen Players of The Tempest and if we weren’t mistaken, there was even a dash of blue sky; get the swimming togs out everyone!

The show decided to convey Prospero as a ring-master, in command of his Island circus, Caliban almost a dancing bear and Ariel the fairy a magician, hopping around the stage and causing mischief at Prospero’s command. There were also the clowns; the comic characters of Stephano the drunk and his friend Trinculo were evocative of court jesters transported from the Globe itself. The costumes and props were the main medium of communicating the circus theme however with bright diamond baggy trousers, waistcoats, bowties and even leather trousers for Prospero. There was a lot of work with umbrellas, appropriate for the circumstances and inventively used by Trinculo mainly to illustrate his confusion at just having been shipwrecked and discovering the beast Caliban.

There was definitely something trippy about the whole performance, but it worked. If that show was anything to perform, it was a lot of fun. The whole performance had an energy and a vibe; it was zany, quirky, at times a little weird… the morph suits and water pistols were an interesting interpretation, but at times it did all feel a little immature. Miranda’s constantly pitch changing voice and much of the mockery made some of the dialogue feel unnatural, the characters forcing the meter and the sounds, reciting Shakespeare rather than taking on the persona of their character.

Contrasted with the RSC’s globe tour production of Henry V at the Playhouse, The Tempest was noticeably a student production. The actors of Henry V on the other hand, were outstanding. King Henry was domineering, noble and at times chilling, Princess Catherine weak, innocent and impressionable and the comical Pistol, Nym and Bardolph were a brilliant supporting cast. The production, despite being confined within the walls of the Playhouse, created a mesmerisingly realistic Elizabethan atmosphere with lyres and drums playing in-between scenes, and the actors walking amongst the aisles and marching back on to stage for the battle scenes. I left desperate for more, overwhelmed by the entire performance. Mere phenomenal acting, traditional sets and costumes and passionate speech meant there was no need for eccentricity or unusual interpretations, something that many modern adaptations of Shakespeare plays feel the need to include, in order to make their performance original.

There is definitely something about open air performances that suits Shakespeare, and particularly a play such as The Tempest gained a lot from being performed outside. It is set on an island and its focal point is the storm, a natural wonder and even if it was only a light breeze, fluttering leaves did enhance the magic. The garden show format does not however work for everything. Players should not make the mistake of thinking that just because it is set outside, it will automatically convey an enchanting atmosphere. Like The Burton Taylor studio, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Pygmalion, my first year garden show experience and also set in Magdalen, did well to transform the stony walls of the President’s garden into a stuffy Edwardian living room and a dusty Covent Garden pavement, with the clusters of trees providing an effective offstage area, as did Arcadia, the surrealist Tom Stoppard piece performed in Frewin Court, with a live tortoise on a oak table providing the main prop.

In spite of our excursion to The Tempest requiring a remedy of a mug of hot chocolate or brandy to warm our insides, outdoor theatre is a wonderful experience. Under the sun or the stars, the performance feels natural and hopeful, even if that hope is for that suspicious looking cloud to drift away towards Cowley… Henry V demonstrated that Shakespeare works best when in open air, when the cast can move around the audience as opposed to appearing statically on a stage. It was due to the quality of the performance that allowed the audience to feel like they were in The Globe in the early 1600s, despite being inside on what turned out to be the first sunny afternoon in Oxford this term. The experience of theatre is far more important than just the script. Henry V was exciting, energetic, witty, tragic, compassionate and dignified; the walls of the playhouse proved no barrier to conveying that; a play is much more than just words and costumes after all, but I will not deny the satisfaction felt at seeing a Shakespeare play under the stars.

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