YORK Shakespeare Project (YSP) is completing its 20-year mission to perform all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays with its 35th production and first tour.
Only 35 productions? Twice, plays were amalgamated into a unified presentation. Whatever path was taken, however, The Tempest was always to be the finale, concluding in an “icing on the cake” staging at York Theatre Royal this weekend.
The tour opened at Thorganby Village Hall last Friday and then headed to Strensall and Towthorpe Village Hall for two Saturday performances.
Tonight comes Helmsley Arts Centre; tomorrow, Selby Town Hall; Thursday, The Junction, Goole; Friday, Acomb Parish Church Hall; Saturday, the York climax, to be followed by a Sunday party.
Each venue presents different challenges: some have lighting, others do not; some have stage exits,others not so. This has led to one-size-fits-all halls design: Richard Hampton’s stage cloth with a tree daubed on it, along with a brace of monkeys on the branches, and a Pride/rainbow-coloured band, sand and sea around the edge. On that perimeter are placed wooden boxes and chests, swept ashore from the storm.
Thorganby Village Hall’s interior is cream coloured and equipped with most welcoming facilities for serving tea and biscuits. Paul French’s Prospero takes a seat by the door as everyone enters, overseeing proceedings even before the start.
The lighting is of the harsh, stripped variety, beloved of such village halls since the Seventies. Director Philip Parr (of Parrabbola and York International Shakespeare Festival) had talked of touring with a rig for Ian Frampton’s lighting design but decided on keeping the Thorganby hall lights on. Not ideal, but them are the breaks, as a departing Prime Minister quaffed only the other week.
On first night, that denied The Tempest of one of its primary elements in a play as rooted in nature as Macbeth is. In its absence, sound and spectacle became more important, indeed the crux of Parr’s interpretation. Maybe lighting can further add to the atmosphere elsewhere.
One key asset of community productions is the potential for a large cast without the professional companies’ burden of having to pay actors. This manifests itself in the role of Ariel, the freedom-craving spirit. Make that 17, yes, seventeen Ariels: any one of the 350 actors who had appeared in a YSP play had an open invitation from Parr to be part of The Ariel Collective.
Good call! These restless Ariels are everywhere, seated on the boxes, or suddenly springing up to assault the reckless shipwrecked; sometimes speaking separately, sometimes together; scoffing at Caliban’s claim to own the island; mocking anyone with pretensions. Not only shape-shifting sprites, but voice-shifting too, they speak for the island, as much as they answer to Prospero.
In the two decades of YSP, this is one of the very best directorial innovations, rivalling Maggie Smales’s all-female Henry V. A round of applause too, please, for Blacksmith Shop Crafts, in Foggathorpe, and cast members who conjured the Ariel costumes, as decorative as an African wedding.
Head of wardrobe Judith Ireland has overseen The Tempest’s array of costumery, whether dandy for Jacob Ward’s Ferdinand or elegant for French’s waistcoated Prospero or free-floating for Effie Warboys’ Miranda.
The all-important storm scene is drowned in sound, the multitude of Ariels kicking up a right swell of noise, through which Harry Summers’ Boatswain and Lara Stafford’s Gonzala must strive to be heard as they cling to the mast. Yes, words are lost, but they would be in a tempest.
Having already played Lear for YSP, now Paul French takes on Shakespeare’s other veteran role. He has no book of spells, no rod, he must craft his own magic, and his Prospero, the wronged, exiled Duke of Milan, is a man no longer wild with anger, but sanguine and aware of his fading powers in pursuance of revenge.
He prefers calm control, a quiet word, whether in proudly coaching young daughter Miranda (full of wonderment in Warboys’ turn) or seeking to tame Andrew Isherwood’s enslaved monster, Caliban, before administering forgiveness in a radiant glow.
Often too, French will pause for thought before delivering both sentence and his next sentence, always choosing the mellifluous when greater variation of tone could be explored.
In his Northern Broadside actor-manager days, Barrie Rutter decried the convention of Shakespeare’s swansong play being very dark in hue, bringing in blues and yellows and jettisoning the black thunder and rough magic.
Parr has retained the thunder but matched Rutter, not only in the bright garb of the Ariel Collective, but also in the humour to be found in those Ariels and Ward’s love-struck Ferdinand, working up a sweat in the interval as he keeps moving the Ariels’ boxes, only for them to move them back (in a representation of collecting wood for Miranda).
Not for the first time in YSP colours, Jodie Fletcher mines the comedy to broadest effect in her Trincula, matched by Tom Jennings’s vainglorious, preening butler Stefano.
Nick Jones, with a dozen YSP productions to his name, combines Ariel duties with composer and musical director credits. He favours Early Music instrumentation and delivers one of the highlights of Parr’s production, the Masque, where Emma Scott and Nell Frampton, last seen as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, reveal pure singing voices as Ceres and Iris, joined by Tracey Rea, always a belting-good singer.
Like the play itself – the prog-rock final flourish to Shakespeare’s gilded career – YSP’s The Tempest is good in parts, underwhelming in others, but that Ariel Collective will live long in the memory.
What next for YSP? Apparently, they will be starting all over again, adding plays by the Bard’s contemporaries too. This represents a chance to shake, rattle and roll out Shakespeare in disparate ways, reflecting changing times through the years ahead and the changing character – and characters – of York too.
The first steps will be taken at YSP’s annual general meeting on October 26 at the Black Swan Inn when the “shadow” committee will table its proposals for the next phase and a and a new chair will be elected.
Box office: yorkshakespeareproject.org; Helmsley, 01439 771700 or helmsleyarts.co.uk; Selby, 01757 708449 or selbytownhall.co.uk; Goole, 01405 763652 or junctiongoole.co.uk; Acomb, eventbrite.com/e/the-tempest-tickets-400909710737; York, 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.