The Tempest, Cardiff Open AIr Festival

June 23, 2024 by


It doesn’t quite feel like Summer in Cardiff until the Open Air Theatre Festival is on. Coming to Sophia Gardens over six weeks, it brings a programme encompassing everything from stand-up comedy to West End musicals, in a purpose-built auditorium framed by the park’s beautiful trees. With the help of the long days and Summer haze, it is a truly delightful atmosphere to enjoy some theatre in, especially as night starts falling and the soft glow of the golden hour makes the players on the stage look like something not entirely of this world. Which is a very fitting frame for Shakespeare’s Tempest, the first prose offering of this season, staged under the direction of Black RAT Productions’ Richard Tunley.




 Prospero (Lewis Cook) commands his obedient Ariel (Amanda Ataou) Photo: Cressida Ford


Let’s address the controversial element first: sacrilegious as that might sound, I have never much cared for The Tempest. It has always been hard to shed the feeling that its reputation is mostly owed to it being Shakespeare’s last work, and the subsequent parallel being struck between the playwright’s own retirement and Duke Prospero’s choice to renounce magic at the end of the play. Remove the frame, though, and the truth remains that The Tempest really doesn’t have much plot at all. Prospero’s shipwrecked enemies mostly spend the play roaming aimlessly around the island, with only a hint of a coup plotline that is aborted before it can get anywhere. Miranda and Ferdinand fall in love instantly upon first meeting, and Prospero’s fleeting opposition to their union is equally instantly declared to be a ruse. The play is so low-stakes that the comic relief offered by misfits Stephano and Trinculo and their attempt to gang up with the monstrous Caliban to overthrow Prospero is genuinely the most narratively gripping part of the script, even with the awareness that their chances of succeeding in such a botched plan are less than zero. With the play resolving in Prospero’s forgiveness of his usurper brother, and the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand being immediately accepted by the prince’s father, there is really little narrative tension to speak of. This being Shakespeare, the language is of course beautiful; this being Shakespeare, touching and amusing moments both abound; but the issue remains – and confronts anyone who tries to stage this work – that there isn’t much of a play, narratively speaking, in The Tempest.


Most of the past productions I have seen have addressed this by leaning heavily on the whimsical, otherworldly elements in the play. It is easy to see why: in a play full of magic and spirits, set on an island that has a whiff of Neverland to it, whimsy feels like a shoe-in. What a pleasant surprise, then, to see this particular production of The Tempest take a completely different direction and decide to bring to the fore the comedic elements of Shakespeare’s work instead. It feels like we sometimes forget it, but The Tempest is, after all, a comedy; it technically is one by Tudor theatre standards; it can easily be one in the modern sense of the term, too, as there are plenty of occasions for humour in the text, should one care to find them. Shakespeare, after all, always loved a good laugh; and many laughs were had throughout The Tempest’s opening night – be they due to pointed delivery, physical comedy, or the juxtaposition between the Bard’s words and a very modern soundtrack.



Miranda (Seren Vickers) and Ferdinand (Sean Rhys-James). Photo: Cressida Ford


The subplot with Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban was easily an audience favourite, and it is easy to see why: put a more comedic spin on the play and that particular storyline will get its chance to shine, as it so rarely does. All three actors did a fantastic job, abandoning all restraint and not being afraid to add a pinch of grotesque to their performance: the image of Caliban becoming addicted to gin minis out of a plane’s refreshment trolley is a clever translation of Shakespearian humour into contemporary language. Getting laughs out of the romance plot was arguably harder; but again, the comedy is there in Shakespeare’s text if one but cares to find it, and the whole cast did a great job of finding exactly the right elements to emphasise.


Not that the whimsy was entirely forgotten. Both the staging and the costumes (those of the spirits and the islanders, at least; the rest were modern, since the only alteration to Shakespeare’s work was to move the story to the present day, turning the ship into a plane) channelled the mood of a slightly eerie fairytale, which is, all in all, what The Tempest ultimately is. Especially in the second half, with the assistance of a mellow summer night and the backdrop of the park being gradually shrouded by dusk, it was easy to enjoy the play by virtue of atmosphere alone. As spirits impersonating Greek goddesses came forth to celebrate the union of Ferdinand and Miranda, it did feel a bit like our stage Prospero had really summoned a bona fide vision. Perhaps this is really the point of The Tempest, after all: it is a play of atmospheres much more than one of plot twists, and the best path to staging it successfully is to accept this fact and run with it.

I don’t know if I will be ever fully reconciled with The Tempest as a whole, but seeing it staged in a park at Midsummer, as the light declines and moths dance around the stage lights, is certainly a good way of experiencing this play in accord with the Bard’s intentions. It is also a delightful way of spending a late June evening, and a more than worthy opener to this year’s festival.



 Ferdinand (Sean Rhys-James) and Miranda (Seren Vickers) “fall in love instantly”. Photo: Cressida Ford


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The Captain (Damon Gibson) and company struggle as the plane goes down. Photo: Cressida Ford



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