The Tempest Kilkenny Castle Parklands
Running instructions have become familiar since Covid. Theatres and production companies send out checklists when tickets are booked, concerning masks (preferable) bar facilities (sometimes limited) etc.
But there was an interesting one tucked into Rough Magic’s checklist for its production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in the Kilkenny Castle Parklands for Kilkenny Arts Festival: wear warm clothes (good idea); no umbrellas allowed (obviously). And this: the show would go on, whatever the weather.
They were remembering, presumably, the horrors of Much Ado About Nothing, which was to have been a triumphant follow-up to the previous year’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the most wonderfully comic Shakespeare I’ve ever seen).
Much Ado was staged in a glamorously mocked-up caravan park in the grounds of St Kieran’s College. And the weather was exactly what caravanners in Ireland expect. It poured. It lashed. The ground around the staging area was flooded, the actors were paddling about, shouting to be heard over the thunderous downpour, raincapes billowing around them.
It had to be abandoned halfway through and the audience waded home. The End.
But for the return of a full festival for 2022, there was another Rough Magic headliner – The Tempest – with the role of the deposed wizard Duke of Milan transposed into the female.
And given that the play encompasses two devastating storms, director Lynne Parker obviously trusted her audience to be troopers enough to sit through a downpour in the name of reality and dedication.
But it never happened – the production instead depending on Sarah Jane Shiels’s spectacular lighting design and Denis Clohessy’s equally evocative sound to transport the audience to Prospero’s storm-wracked Mediterranean island.
From the moment Eleanor Methven strides onto her rocky crag (Alan Farquharson’s design) and wraps herself in a shimmering cloak (costumes by Sorcha Ní Fhloinn), while her wizard’s staff conjures up the storm that will begin her revenge on the devious brother who stole her Duchy, we suspend all disbelief.
Towering over us is a swinging basket; a cross between a ship’s crow’s nest and a lighting beacon from which the spirit slave Ariel wreaks the magic she demands to spread confusion, fear, and finally hope among the shipwrecked crew led by King Alonso of Naples.
Along the way, Prospero’s devious brother Antonio, who is of the shipwrecked company, plots with false courtier Sebastian to murder the sleeping king, while in a comic counter, Caliban, the crippled and crude monster plots with Trinculo, the king’s foolish court jester, and the court butler Sebastian, to murder Prospero, and thereby rule the island.
But always in The Tempest there is the softer side of Prospero. And as a woman, that softer side becomes almost more believable: she is a mother, a she-wolf baring her fangs in defence of Miranda, the daughter who was exiled with her while still a baby.
And Miranda needs protection. Never having seen a male other than Caliban, the sight of King Alonso’s son Ferdinand is an overwhelming apparition. Love is inevitable and instant. And in this production, Ferdinand is a right dope: we can see why Prospero fears for her daughter. But it’s very funny.
The casting is inspired, as is Parker’s sure-footed direction, steering between light-hearted nods and winks at the magical stunts (some terrific pieces of design) and the fierce undertow of determined vengeance.
Methven’s Prospero is a towering figure, utterly believable as a woman who has long nursed her intelligence to a just end, and Martha Breen makes a memorable Ariel.
John Cronin doubles as the deformed Caliban and the villainous Antonio, and there’s also a doubling up by Rowan Finken as the twittish Ferdinand and the other villain Sebastian.
Rory Nolan is Stephano, and manages to make him dominant in the clowning with Ankur Vikal’s Trinculo. It’s a comic trio with Caliban that works, unusually enough for Shakespearean clowning, for modern eyes.
Gillian Buckle balances Miranda extremely well between femininity and self awareness, and Gina Moxley pontificates wisely as the faithful Gonzalo, and Arthur Riordan as a suitably gormless Alonso.
Altogether this Tempest encourages an audience to believe in magic: it’s what theatre is all about.