Directed by Aileen Gonslaves, 12 July 2015
Reviewed by Evelyn O’Malley
The stranded fishing boats in Luke Jerram’s art installation Withdrawn provoke questions: how did they get there? What circumstances have left them washed up, abandoned, wrecked in the National Trust’s Leigh Woods and far from the sea; and what might the wrecks remember, what secrets might they hold, what environmental changes have they witnessed?
We Are Butterfly’s The Tempest is the first outdoor, site-based production I have come across describing itself as actively seeking to engage with ideas of environment and climate change, in this case through a site-responsiveness to Jerram’s Withdrawn. I must admit here that I had a difficult journey to get to Leigh Woods for the Sunday matinee of. My journey from Exeter involved a bike ride, a train, a bus journey and a long walk from the wrong side of the Clifton Suspension Bridge. What google-maps thought would take ten minutes took nearly an hour and I arrived late, sweaty and having nearly given up (but for bumping into a couple, also lost, but with a sense of where to go).
My newfound companions and I arrived just in time to join the rest of the audience walking from the carpark into the waves of Prospero’s tempest. We were ushered under sheets of blue fabric by sailors in navy raincoats and yellow hats and found ourselves ‘washed up’ in the midst of Jerram’s installation in a clearing in the woods: immediate and delightful parallels here between Shakespeare’s and Jerram’s stranded wrecks. Aboard one of the boats, Prospero, competently played by Julian Protheroe, and Miranda, a spirited Georgie Ashworth, began to reflect on the storm just passed. We watched from the land, as they delivered a pacey first scene; Shakespeare’s text well-trimmed but retaining just enough for clarity, ease of understanding and a strong sense of story.
Prospero’s staff was a musical tuning fork; a tap on a boat and its ping sent Miranda to sleep, kept Caliban (Elliot Thomas) at a distance. It wasn’t the most convincing magic in the daylight, but Protheroe appeared committed to the illusion and worked it with belief and conviction. As an audience, we moved from scene to scene, boat to boat, around the installation as we watched the story unfold. Caliban was on one boat, Antonio (Matthew McPherson) and Alonsa (Kate Ellis) on another and so on. Ariel (Gail Sixsmith) eagerly made music, swished and flailed, guiding us between boats; silky white, bleach blonde and henna tattooed. It was a lovely opportunity to explore the nooks and crannies of the installation, to see it from different angles, and the production was playful and creative in its movement through the space.
All around and on the boats, signs ask us not to climb on Jerram’s installation: the boats aren’t playthings; they’re dangerous; they’re an art installation; only those who are ‘properly trained’ aboard.
The story was presented in linear fashion, as the original, and there were no particular additions or amendments to the spoken text, save abbreviations. Running at just over an hour, this promenade production – where the audience stand throughout – is by far the best length I have encountered as an audience member, my tired legs seemed to say. The time flew by, gnats gnawed at us and sunshine broke through the drizzle and entered the clearing to light the actors.
There were a couple of particularly poignant moments in the Prospero/ Miranda relationship. Prospero delivered ‘our revels now are ended’ (4. 1. 147) speech, worked-up, vexed and angry. He ended it, spent and visibly distressed. From a further boat, Miranda, who had been watching with a cheeky Ferdinand (Owen Pullar), made her way through the audience and gave her father a hug. They was a tenderness, a warmth that emanated from the embrace that felt genuine and very much needed. He needed the hug. He really needed her on the island, just as she had relied on him.
Prospero’s vulnerability continued to the end of the production. Having renounced his magic, he had second thoughts about breaking his staff. About to exit the clearing, he headed over to the boat and placed the tuning fork on the side; walking away, lonely. A hand reached out slowly from behind the side and took a hold of the staff. Caliban’s head peered over from inside the boat, gazing at his newfound ownership of the island with awe, joy and wonder but it was Prospero’s quiet departure – his daughter long gone – that was haunting, troubling and unfinished.
It was clear and perhaps disappointing after a few scenes that any resonances between the play and the installation appeared to be left to our imagination. The parallels between the abandoned boats and shipwrecks were evident but beyond this there was no radical or explicit engagement with ideas of anthropogenic environmental damage or climate change in the production. While it’s perhaps a relatively unpopular view, Shakespeare on his own doesn’t seem to be enough to ‘speak to’ our contemporary predicament, at least not directly, despite the carefully considered and playful use of the space by We Are Butterfly. The installation complemented the Shakespeare more than Shakespeare spoke to the boats. There was, however, some potential unleashed in the articulation of these ideas and the promise of more time, more collaborations between live performances, art and environment which may lead to further challenging adaptations.
The couple I met on the way in love it. ‘Powerful’, she reflects pensively as we walk back through the woods and down the hill together.