Regardless how many big budget versions are knocking around London's main theatres Shakespeare remains popular with fringe production companies and, arguably, it is in these small venues where the need to do something different is greater.
That is certainly the approach being taken by the Tree Folk Theatre Company which has incorporated music, dance and puppetry into its trimmed down version of The Tempest. Prospero is performed with masked head that conjures up images of tree folk, complete with slightly scary bug eyes and flowing green and blue plastic bag hair. Ariel, similarly, but with longer sprite-like face and white-blue plastic hair.
Caliban is a bald head, torso, hands and feet manipulated by three actors. His movement sometimes human-like sometimes breaking into pieces and reforming elsewhere (perhaps something better suited to Ariel?)
The visual depiction works wells for the magical island's inhabitants in Shakespeare's shipwreck comedy drama. There is also some innovative use of books which double up as magical creatures more than once. The cast, some taking two parts, also add sound effects and musical interludes with guitars, violins or just by breaking into song as the fantastical story unfolds.
And, with the masks, there is always a danger of hiding some of the performance. All the shipwrecked nobility wear eye masks and movement and form seemed, again, exaggerated to over compensate. Prospero's is the most wordy part in the play and there is only so much an actor can do with a static expressioned mask and one free hand. That said, the mask was used to good effect at the end of the play when Prospero turns his back on magic.
Credit too should go to Isabel Sharman for giving Miranda a naivety and child-like fascination while making her grown up enough to attract the attention of Prince Ferdinand. I've seen Miranda played far too childlike which just makes the lovers storyline difficult to swallow.
Tree Folk Theatre's The Tempest runs at The Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone until Aug 3 and is 2 hours long with an interval.