First published in The Times, Monday July 25 2022
Nicole Cooper, the much-admired actor and a linchpin of the Bard in the Botanics company, is surely one of the few thespians to have played both Prospero (as part of an all-female adaptation at the Tron) and Miranda (for Bard) in The Tempest.
Her next step has been a deeper dive into Shakespeare’s swansong, radically reworking the play as well as directing this moving, pared-back production.
The company has previous when it comes to overhauling texts, whether it be switching around gender roles, dispensing with sub-plots, even soldering another play on to the end of The Taming of the Shrew.
This adaptation is perhaps the most unflinching yet seen in the gardens. Gone is the light relief provided by the comic grotesques,while the subterfuge involving the shipwrecked king and his court barely registers. Instead, Cooper has developed a laser-like focus on the father- daughter relationship, wresting fresh poignancy from Prospero’s assertion that “we are such stuff as dreams are made on”.
The central conception is of the great sorcerer and erstwhile Duke of Milan as an ailing chief executive, slipping between reverie and lucidity, with parallels drawn between the everyday world of the dementia patient and the extraordinary fantasy of Shakespeare.
Thus Jennifer Dick’s Ariel doubles as a nurse, restoring calm to Alan Steele’s Prospero at times of agitation, while Caliban (played by Adam Donaldson) is remembered as a disgruntled ex-employee as well as the sad monster of the island.
Cooper takes liberties, including reorganising the play’s chronology. Aside from the occasional contemporary passage, the words are Shakespeare’s, with the new shape offering an ironic take on the characters’ power dynamics. The complexity of the relationship between Miranda (Lynsey-Anne Moffat) and her father, which shifts between memory and dream, present and past, is truly affecting, upsetting even. Not for nothing does the show carry a warning at the door.
There are drawbacks to the leanness of the production: at times, you wish for a few more signals, whether in lighting or costume, as the cast of four switches between roles. Clearly such a radical interpretation will not be to everyone’s taste, but, judged on its own terms, the result bears out Cooper’s audacity, and there is no denying the raw impact of Steele and Moffat’s performances.
To July 30. Bardinthebotanics.co.uk