First published in The Times, Friday October 2 2015
The significance of the washing machine sitting downstage centre doesn’t become apparent until the ensemble arrives onstage, ceremonially bearing a box of detergent. The brand? Ariel, of course.
Into the drum goes the dirty laundry, and as the machine starts to judder, the stage darkens, the curtain rises and the cast swirl away into the evocative opening storm scene.
This may seem a trivial way to start a production of Shakespeare’s swan song, turning on a rather naff visual gag. Yet the irreverent approach taken by Phelim McDermott, the director, proves surprisingly infectious, gleefully undercutting any threatened seriousness with broad humour throughout.
More significantly, the production, staged by McDermott’s Improbable Theatre Company in collaboration with Northern Stage and the Oxford Playhouse, immerses its audience in an atmosphere that is truly rich and strange.
For starters, the laundry motif extends to the entire production design, created by Becs Andrews. The ship’s sails are made of sewn-together shirts. Prospero’s “magic garment” is a flowing robe of old coats adorned with ties. The island, littered with piles of discarded clothes, comes to recall, variously, a dust heap, a moonscape or a beach half-ruined by detritus from the ocean, thanks to Colin Grenfell’s versatile lighting designs. A soundtrack of percussion and high-pitched frequencies, composed and performed live by Brendan Murphy further enhances this exquisite otherworldliness.
McDermott and the nine-strong cast maintain an impressive control of mood and atmosphere over the course of a speedy two-and-a-half hours. The island inhabitants, festooned in patchwork rags, melt in and out of Andrews’s set like chameleons, while the survivors of the shipwreck lumber around in puffy white suits. Though the ensemble as a whole happily commits itself to McDermott’s offbeat vision, standout performances include Eileen Walsh’s Ariel, who is part feral child, part playground bully. Her capacity to turn on a sixpence from mischief to spite is mirrored in Tyrone Huggins’s nuanced turn as Prospero. While the actor finds an unusual degree of humour in the role, he never allows us to forget the torrent of rage going on just beneath the surface.