Steampunk Tempest! The very title hints at something wonderful: a melding of Shakespeare’s tale of shipwreck and magic, with the motifs of exploration and technology that underpin steampunk culture. It’s an inspired theme for the debut show from Edinburgh-based Some Kind of Theatre, whose mission is to bring theatre to unconventional venues – primarily places like hospices and care homes, but in this case, no less worthily, to the comedy-dominated programme of PBH’s Free Fringe.
Sadly though, Steampunk Tempest doesn’t really deliver on its concept: it’s more just The Tempest with steampunk detailing. Yes, there are plenty of goggles and an impressively-waxed moustache, and Prospero’s staff has a weather-vane on top. But the characters still derive their power from magic rather than technology, and the dialogue makes clear that Ariel is still a sprite. It feels like there’s a failure of imagination here: even if they didn’t want to adulterate Shakespeare’s text, they could have edited out the more incongruous details and let the audience’s imagination fill the steampunk back-story in.
Where the production is creative, though, is in its free-handed gender inversion. Prospero is female (though still, it seems, the rightful Duke of Milan), while Ariel is a mischievous and masculine figure, more than a little beholden to Puck. Most interesting of all, the monster Caliban is played as a petite and coquettish woman, reliant on scheming sexuality in place of brutality or fear. As so often, these twists bring out new meaning in Shakespeare’s words, lending extra poignancy to Ariel’s servitude and exploring new directions for both Prospero and Caliban.
There’s a lot of humour to the production too. I enjoyed Miranda’s wide-eyed love for the faintly gormless Ferdinand, played to perfection by Imogen Reiter and Felix Maxwell respectively. Jamie Gould, meanwhile, finds some unexpected comedy in Sebastian’s lines, while Charlie Angelo’s drunken Stephano is filled with boisterous bravado – though it must be said, that particular joke quickly grew old. I’d have liked a little more commitment to the fast-paced chaos of some later scenes, but overall it’s a witty interpretation that remains faithful to Shakespeare’s intent.
It’s a remarkably large cast, in Fringe terms – several times I thought we’d met them all, but they just keep on coming – and the abridgement down to the regulation hour is well-thought-through, for all that it leads to some heavy exposition in the first twenty minutes or so. Holding it all together, Danielle Farrow is on fine form as Prospero, fully in command of the Bardic language and bringing the merest hint of a mad inventor to her role.
All in all then, Steampunk Tempest isn’t quite what it promised, but it’s a fine interpretation of the text all the same. Next time round, I urge a little more boldness with the adaptation – but until then, this stands as a worthy production, and a welcome beachhead for Shakespeare in the Free Fringe.