“This rough magic I here abjure”
The Bridge Project, a transatlantic company of actors performing two classic plays in rep directed by Sam Mendes, returns to the Old Vic for its second year after playing numerous venues across the world. After a well-received double-bill of The Cherry Orchard and The Winter’s Tale last year, there’s a greater focus on Shakespeare with As You Like It partnering The Tempest.
This is a somewhat low-key interpretation of Shakespeare’s final play. Played in modern dress, it tells of Prospero, usurped as Duke of Milan by his own brother and cast out to sea with his infant daughter Miranda. Shipwrecked on a mysterious island full of magical knowledge, 12 years pass until he is able to confront his enemies aided and abetted by his enslaved island creatures Ariel and Caliban and through a masterful display of control-freakery, manipulate most everyone he deals with into achieving his own aims.
Christian Camargo’s Ariel is a delightfully nuanced performance, quietly musical even when not singing and portrayed in a flexibly androgynous way: slipping between shirtless suits, elegant evening wear and a striking set of avenging angel wings with ease. A different Ariel but one which convinced and I very much enjoyed Camargo’s interpretation. And I quite liked Dillane’s pensive, ambivalent, all-too-human Prospero too, less of a wizard and more of a man, so adept at playing the long game he has forgotten how to feel passion yet still wryly quite funny. Together their scenes are excellent, a close chemistry between the two and some mirroring of gestures which was a small, but beautifully observed touch.
It’s not that there are any bad performances per se in the rest of the ensemble, although Jonathan Lincoln Fried looked quite uncomfortable, it’s just it is all quite measured, verging on the ponderous. Good quality acting rather than great and so one ends up longing for more interjections from the likes of Juliet Rylance’s Miranda and Edward Bennett’s Ferdinand, both of whom speak beautifully in the illuminating discovery of their passion and Alvin Epstein’s tender, honest Gonzalo. At times, even in the more comic scenes or the traitorous actions of the noblemen, it is so calm it is dangerously close to being dull.
Creatively, it looks and sounds beautiful. Stephen Bentley-Klein and Shane Shanahan provide a lush soundscape, with music and sound effects filling the theatre from their stations either side of the stage, Tom Piper’s set design has book-filled nooks and crannies at the front where Prospero is often found reading or taking notes throughout all the scenes, an artfully bare wall at the back vividly lit by Paul Pyant, changing from a deep earthy red for Caliban and an airy turquoisy blue for Ariel. But the focus is centred around a magic circle on the stage: filled with sand, all the action happens in here, Prospero manipulates his players within, observing impatiently without. It is a clever device, simple but highly effective: initially it seemed a little hokey, but soon proved its worth in the opening shipwreck scene and ultimately provides the one truly moving moment at the play’s close.
Sure there’s a couple of unnecessary touches, one sound effect which sounded just like someone slurping a drink (I checked behind me, they weren’t) and the home video played at the wedding just felt wrong to me. And given that a considerable portion of Shakespeare’s language has been trimmed, a fair bit of time is given over to wordless dance sequences.
Altogether it amounts to a little bit of a damp squib, a solid three star show rising to a four in its final quarter. Given my recent disappointments at the Old Vic, and indeed the Old Vic tunnels (I’m really not having a good time this year with this theatre!), it rated quite well, but when one compares it to the previous Bridge Project plays, it is hard not to be underwhelmed. As a production, it seems ill-suited to its company and fails to play to their strengths; I hope As You Like It is a better fit.