Oxford’s much-loved professional theatre company, Creation Theatre, has a well-deserved reputation for taking risks in the interests of telling a great story. As an Oxford resident and an avid theatre goer – I want Creation Theatre to continue to enrich Oxford by taking these risks, even if in this case, its production of the Tempest hasn’t struck quite the right balance between story-telling and the immersive experience.
The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s most loved plays – endlessly adapted. It tells the story of Prospero, formerly the Duke of Milan, who has been overthrown by his family and forced to flee in a boat with only his magical books and his baby daughter, Miranda. They end up on an island inhabited by magical spirits. After years of living on the island, a storm, brewed by Prospero, shipwrecks his traitorous family on the island. The family drama plays out.
Creation Theatre’s production of the Tempest is an interactive adventure, set on Oxford’s Osney Island. The experience begins with the audience members welcomed by cruise staff onto a ship – in reality – a large room in the King’s Centre lovingly set up to resemble the interior of a cruise ship. The sailing is smooth, until a storm springs up from no-where and the audience is forced to evacuate. This part of the experience is done to perfection.
The audience is broken into smaller groups, around 10 in our show. Over the next 2 hours and 50 minutes, each group was treated to various Tempest scenes and asked to complete an assortment of tasks at different locations throughout Osney Island – walking between each location.
The logistical challenges of ensuring that each group was able to experience the different scenes, at the different locations, in a relatively smooth way are prodigious. The experiences fell into two categories; actors playing scenes from the Tempest and, what I started to think of as “busy work”; very loosely Tempest-related tasks given to the group to either speed or slow the group to ensure a smooth progression for all groups to the different actor based scenes.
What began to really surprise me was how few scenes from the Tempest were actually shown. Not counting the first and final scenes, where all the groups come back together, I counted around 5 main scenes with live actors (as opposed to pre-recorded scenes), each taking between 5-10 minutes.
In a show that took 2 hours and 50 minutes, to have such a small number of Shakespeare’s scenes portrayed by live actors, is quite a courageous decision. It was a pity. Most of the scenes with live actors were so much fun. A particular credit must go to PK Taylor who played Caliban. Taylor’s Gollum-esque portrayal, in less than 10 minutes, was at once heart-rending and repulsive. I would have loved to see more.
The category of experience in this production, that I labelled “busy work”, was in general where the production was let down. There was waiting. When we weren’t waiting, we were asked to complete tasks to keep us busy – clapping and counting to 5, bowing, sending emails, walking down the street to post a note in a letter box, and then walking back again, hanging around Prospero’s shack…
At the start of one waiting period, the actor who was in charge of herding us, told us “Good things come to those who wait.” And so we waited. And good things did come. Short scenes from the Tempest, beautifully portrayed. But not many of them.
And yet. One particular task where we shopped for spell ingredients and found a key was particularly evocative. Despite having the most tenuous link to the story, the genuinely creepy meat market/zombie task was the first linking experience that really evoked the feeling of malignant forces at work on the island; proving that even these linking tasks could enhance the story.
Would I recommend going to this production? It depends. If you have a group of friends that want a really fun night out, then you will have a great time on this adventure. If you want to see Shakespeare’s Tempest, then no, probably not.
Housekeeping: There is a lot of walking on this production. Two of our group’s members, keen runners, were wearing GPS running watches. Both watches recorded us as having walked 3.2km during the show. Much of this is on uneven ground, up stairs and in narrow spaces. While Creation Theatre has done its best to accommodate less mobile theatre goers – I cannot recommend this production to anyone who has any kind of mobility difficulty.
Take a water bottle, snacks, sunscreen and, if you are delicious to insects, wear repellent. If you are going to a matinee, then take a hat and sunglasses too.
Declaration of Interest: I am a fully paid up “friend” of Creation Theatre (or an “Extra” in Creation Theatre vernacular). I have tried to ensure that this hasn’t influenced my review
- Author: William Shakespeare
- Directed by: Zoe Seaton
- Cast includes PK Taylor, Madeleine MacMahon, Annabelle Terry and Simon Spencer.
- Creation Theatre, held at various locations around Osney Island.
- Between 2.5 - 3 hours, no traditional interval, until 15 August
- Matinees 2pm, Evening Performances 7:30pm