By Danielle Farrow
There are some shows you just will to be good, especially when they have such ingredients as The Tempest presented by Hands in the Air in association with Mermaids (a St Andrews University theatre society) and the Demarco European Arts Foundation. This version of Shakespeare’s tale about a wronged Duke using his magical powers against his enemies is beautifully set on a pebble and shell beach in the grounds of the Hopetoun Estate, the waters of the Firth of Forth lapping and splashing and the heavens shifting through sun and cloud above, while rocks chalked in runes rise against a backdrop of the Bridges.
There are some lovely directorial details: Caliban’s first appearance is managed excellently, touches intrigue such as characters seen in the distance, fine musicianship accompanies action, including Miranda’s harp-playing, and the impressive setting also provides a welcome and a farewell using the gates and exterior of Hopetoun House itself. There are decent aspects of performance, such as Ariel’s expressiveness, Prospero’s clarity, Ferdinand’s connection to thought, Antonio’s believable addresses to the audience, Trinculo’s physicality, liveliness and in-the-moment delivery, and – above all – Miranda’s joyful admiration and youthful curiosity. The ‘beast’ formed by Caliban and Trinculo was also well-played.
However, there were huge drawbacks – Ferdinand’s thoughts, for all they were clear, were painfully slow (Shakespeare’s thoughts are in his words, and usually should be played with them, not in between), and he was not alone in leaving gaps you could sail a ship through. There were any number of times when other people would have spoken while we waited for one performer’s lines, had the characters been reacting naturally. The moving around the beach, though reasonably handled, added to time and to a lack of forward drive in the story-telling, which made the two hours of actual performance lag. Only Miranda and Trinculo kept energy that could continually entertain, and many performances were on a singular level, with little variation or connection to the stakes involved for the characters, again affecting forward momentum.
In a site specific piece, actors must be able to deal with the constraints of the site, which here meant being able to project their voices over the increasingly loud waves. While they were doing fairly well with the outdoors aspect, the waters defeated all but one of them by the end, that one having a declamatory vocal style – mostly irritating in terms of acting – that was at least not being drowned out.
Impresario Richard Demarco is devoted to the idea of plays in Edinburgh that, due to their setting, could not be seen elsewhere. This is a most admirable notion but the production must be able to deal with the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the site, which did not work here in terms of pace, strong delivery and – by the end – actually being heard.