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“Such stuff as dreams are made off”

A lush garden setting brings enchantment to Shakespeare’s most magical play.

The Tempest is probably Shakespeare’s most magical play and the lush fragrant garden of St Paul’s Church Covent Garden, ‘the actors’ church’, couldn’t be a more magical setting. Open-air theatre is quite a staple of summer time in London, and seeing Shakespeare among the roses and the birdsong, this promenade production by Iris Theatre is truly making the most of the lush setting, blending wooden benches, garden and stage almost seamlessly into one gorgeous immersive environment. Add a balmy summer evening, buzzing bumblebees and sweeping swallows above and you are literally transported to the strange and magical isle “full of noises, sounds and sweet airs, that give delight”. At one point a real, curious little blackbird actually lands on the sleeping Miranda on stage – you can’t rehearse moments like these!

The opening scene of the infamous shipwreck is done purely through physical theatre and soundscape. Not every line is audible from the un-miced actors and at times, it is  tricky to ignore the noise from close by Covent Garden or the occasional London helicopter above. But then this is the thing with open-air theatre: you have to use your imagination that little bit more. A real breeze ruffling the trees or billowing a cloak more than makes up for it.

Iris Theatre's The Tempest, St. Paul's Church (Linford Johnson) - courtesy of Nick Rutter

The promenade production uses 3 different settings in the garden and one inside the church, so be prepared to gather up your belongings and get moving when the actors urge you to “Come!” “Go!” or “Follow swift!” The first setting on Prospero’s magic isle resembles a tree house where the magus can hang his magic cloak in the branches and lean his spell book against the tree trunk. His spirit Ariel, birdlike in movement and appearance, is as outlandish a creature as you could wish for, with a shock of pale blue hair and a feathered costume. Charlotte Christensen brings most of the music to the play, playing the flute and letting her clear, opera-trained voice soar to the sky.

Iris Theatre's The Tempest, St. Paul's Church (Charlotte Christensen) - courtesy of Nick Rutter

The look and feel of this production is classic Shakespeare in traditional renaissance costume, colourful and with a slight touch of Disney about them. Joanne Thomson’s Miranda is a warm and earthy “wench”, her relationship with her father Prospero (Jamie Newall) full of trust and love. She is adorably funny when she gets the hots for young Prince Ferdinand, the first man she’s every seen, and sincerely touching in her marriage proposal (“I am your wife, if you will marry me: If not, I'll die your maid”). You couldn’t get a more romantic setting for the young lovers.

Iris Theatre's The Tempest, St. Paul's Church (Jamie Newall and Joanne Thomson) - courtesy of Nick Rutter

Not everything is as smooth, particularly the scripts blatant racism against Caliban is not handled very sensitively and often comes down very harsh and wince-inducing. More contemporary adaptations sometime fair better at extracting statement about the here and now from Shakespeare’s original texts.

It is much to the credit of the bard, and the brilliant actors – Paul Brendan as Trinculo and Reginald Edwards as Stephano - that the lengthy scenes of drunken tomfoolery still generate so many laughs. For the masque in act IV, a scene of singing and dancing to celebrate the nuptials of Ferdinand and Miranda, the goddesses arrive in drag, which is classic Shakespeare humour. There is even a bit of participatory dancing from the audience.

Iris Theatre's The Tempest, St. Paul's Church (Paul Brendan, Prince Plockey and Reginald Edwards) - courtesy of Nick Rutter

In essence, Shakespeare always belonged outdoors and as the sun sets and night falls, the garden gets arguably even more fragrant and magical with zigzagging bats replacing the birds at dusk. With the sound of Ariel’s flute and cymbals, and Prospero mastering the elements with smoke, wind and fire on stage, the gorgeous scenario makes this very traditional production really feel like “such stuff as dreams are made off”. It’s everything you could ask of a summer Shakespeare.

Iris Theatre's The Tempest is at St. Paul's Church, Covent Garden  20 June - 28 July. Tickets are £20 with children and family tickets available.