Instruments restored to heart of Shakespeare's play
Thinking about how many composers have plundered The Tempest for texts – or in the case of Tippett’s The Knot Garden a whole dramatic structure – it’s kind of shameful that no musician has thought to unpick the actual relationship between music and text in this most musical of Shakespeare plays.
But, performed in the round at St Giles’ Cripplegate Church, the Jericho House theatre company’s new production of The Tempest starts precisely from that premise. Director Jonathan Holmes has even suggested that Shakespeare’s musical collaborator, and lutenist to the King, Robert Johnson, should be handed co-authorial credit. The Tempest, his argument continues, is the shortest of Shakespeare’s plays because music was originally integrated at a deep structural level, and expected to carry some of the dramatic weight. Composer Jessica Dannheiser and music director Emily Baines have borrowed what survives of Johnson’s music as a portal into a re-imagined Tempest where, once again, music and text are holistically interlaced. ‘It’s highly likely the score would have been at least partly improvised, resulting in an almost jazz-like spontaneity,’ Dannheiser thinks, ‘and a very close relationship between music and text.’
Now I’m no Shakespeare scholar but jazz is one thing I do know about, and ‘jazz-like spontaneity’ implies a circular dialogue between music and text: one continually transforming the other. That I didn’t hear, and this being Shakespeare that wouldn’t have been desirable anyway. Rumblings and clicks on miscellaneous percussion instruments in the opening scenes felt musically undernourished and I’d be intrigued to know how far that approach was rooted in period research. But with ‘Full Fathom Five’, intoned from the soul by Ruth Lass, a female Ariel, the promised counterpoint between music and text suddenly blossomed. Music stretched and morphed the tick-tock of passing time. Sound resonated, bled into Shakespeare’s structural ley lines. Time slowed, the actors moved in stylised slow motion.
No one involved claims this Tempest as authentic re-creation, and that is its great strength: historically informed, not historically dependent. Prospero’s (the excellent Alan Cox) lounge suit, Cailban’s (Nabil Stuart) Sci-Fi white suit and the stark set (Rachel Lynes’ Miranda spends most of her time perched on very 21st century scaffolding) implies cyclic time. The scholarship reaches back four centuries, but the performance could happen at any point during the next four hundred years.
Shakespeare, being of the manor the City of London, knew St. Giles Cripplegate. He’d have recognised and respected Jericho House’s ingenuity and creative spark too.
The Tempest runs until October 22 - click for more details
Philip Clark is a critic for Gramophone and The Wire, and a composer-turned-improviser. He tweets as @MusicClerk.