On a bare studio stage, with only a triangle of LED lights for company, Martin Lewton made a brave attempt to inhabit the play’s many parts: painted silver, he was an arresting Prospero, fey Mirando, a teary Duke and breathy Fernando. Yet I found these ‘straight’ parts blending into one another, speeches becoming flat and tangled as they reached towards a tragic or romantic register. Vague blocking and aimless strolls across the stage didn’t help.
With its emphasis on queer love (the play was first performed in 2014, the year of Marriage Equality), the play’s only real love scene between Mirando and Fernando was an oversentimental disappointment. Lacking emotional punch (due in part to the play being highly abridged and rattled-through), it was only saved by a final pause when the actor’s two hands held each other in a moment of honest connection. But in the clowning roles, Lewton shone. His Ariel was a prancing queen, cock bouncing gleefully with each skip; Stephano was played with a comic swagger and Jonathan Ross lisp; the goddess Juno becomes a Northern drag queen. And Lewton’s Caliban – writhing, cowering, body wracked with self-inflicted pinches – was his
most engaging performance of the night. Lewton’s exposure here, his loneliness on stage and his nakedness, took on fresh meaning, emphasising Caliban’s wretchedness and pitiable mortality in a powerful yet tender way not often allowed this character.
Not a successful love story then, this version of The Tempest was at its best when tackling the play’s themes of mortality; while speeches were sometimes garbled, lines about death stood out. There is a particularly arresting scene involving Ariel, a UV skeleton and a blacklight. After an hour of strutting and fretting on the stage, we believe Lewton’s Prospero, his magic renounced, with broken voice and sagging haunches, when he announces that he will return to Milan ‘where every third thought shall be my grave.’
Mirando: The Gay Tempest is a strange and compelling testament to the dying traditions of gay cabaret; but as a Shakespeare adaptation it founders, defeated by its own ambition.
Mirando: The Gay Tempest will be playing at LION AND THE UNICORN THEATRE Kentish Town, 23 February – 5 March 2016. Tickets available here