Wildcard Theatre’s new gig-theatre reimagining of Shakespeare’s Tempest officially opens tonight (16 March 2022) at London’s Pleasance Theatre for a strictly limited run. Designer Luke W Robson took a break from preparations to help us hyphenate gig-theatre and talk about sundials, sustainability and sexiness in creating the show’s look and feel. Time to get booking!
Directed and adapted by James Meteyard, designed by Luke W Robson, performed by a cast of nine-actor musicians, with original music by Jasmine Morris, this Tempest is Shakespeare like you have never experienced it before.
Wildcard’s notorious gig-theatre style has achieved critical acclaim – most notably, Electrolyte won five awards at the Edinburgh Fringe. Entirely underscored by live music, featuring newly composed songs, as well as Shakespearean originals, this adrenaline-fuelled reimagining brings a fresh perspective to a timeless classic.
Banished to a mystical island with nothing but their magical books, Prospero waits in isolation for twelve long years. Consumed by a desire for revenge, they forge a new life with their daughter Miranda, slave Caliban and servant-spirit, Ariel. Using Ariel, and all his qualities, Prospero conducts a terrible storm to shipwreck their enemies, stranding them in Prospero’s new kingdom. Divided, lost and confused, the group find themselves at the mercy of twisted vengeance. But will Prospero’s bitterness destroy them, or will humanity prevail?
Tempest runs at the Pleasance Theatre until 3 April 2022, with a post-show Q&A chaired by Mates founder Terri Paddock on Tuesday 22 March.
How did you become involved with Wildcard Theatre?
I became involved in Wildcard when they took Electrolyte back to Edinburgh and on a UK tour. Wildcard are unique in their ambition and generosity of collaboration. The company was formed to offer something different, unexpected and exciting and I think Tempest is a continuation of that mission.
How do you define gig theatre? What’s the appeal for audiences?
I am not particularly knowledgeable on the definition, but I have a working theory that gig theatre is best described with a hyphen between the two words. Spider-Man isn’t ‘Spiderman’ or ‘Spider Man’ but a literal hybrid that combines the power of both human and arachnid. Gig Theatre (or rather ‘Gig-Theatre’) should be both theatre-with-music and music-with-theatre, it’s live storytelling by actor-musicians. Which, despite the abundance of hyphens, isn’t pretentious because it doesn’t bring with it any of the tribalism or tropes of musical theatre. Gig-theatre is whatever you want it to be, but it’s gonna be loud.
What, if any, special challenges does gig-theatre present for designers?
There is an artifice at the heart of gig-theatre, in that audiences watch a bunch of actor-musicians telling a story in the form of a gig. This might sound obvious, but it means that the ‘need’ for design is often less than in conventional theatre, where audiences are (typically) expected to believe the performers ‘are’ the characters they are performing. In this sense, the ‘need’ for design is much closer to that of a gig than it is to theatre. In essence, a designer is there to enhance the visual storytelling and make everyone look sexy.
How would you describe the design concept for Tempest specifically and how did you develop it?
At the centre of the design (symbolically and literally) is a desire to represent an obsession with time and humanity. A large gold structure dominates the space, transforming from a ship into a sundial. The sundial is an instrument of Prospero as creator-god, master of an island on which nothing happens by chance but design. Like the Cornucopia in The Hunger Games, the sundial’s rotations illustrate the passage of time and the change in fortunes of those on the island.
I re-watched one of the Fyre Festivals recently and was struck by the larger-than-life characters washed up on an unfamiliar, barely habitable island, doused with drink, jostling for power (influence) and human connection. In a sense, the ambition of the production is almost ‘Festival-Gig-Theatre’ (I’ve gone mad with hyphens). We hope to transport you to a magical island full of, if not a thousand, then at least a dozen twanging instruments, and a design inspired by Jim Henderson’s Labyrinth, Mad Max and Burning Man.
How closely have you worked with the director?
In early 2019, our director James Meteyard described to me his idea for a gig-theatre reimagining of The Tempest while I ‘built‘ a scale model of what the set could be using paper, sellotape and a Sharpie. The model eventually fell apart because I’d done it so badly, but we’d made a valuable start in creating the show we wanted to make. It’s been a hugely collaborative process, which included scavenging together from a closing-down prop store, where we discovered the building blocks of the production in terms of set dressing, props and costume.
And the cast? How does design enhance individual performers?
The cast are fabulous and immediately embraced the concepts (including my suggestion of the gold hot pants/leotard, which I was pleased about). A lot of the costumes came together through conversations with the actors and was another properly collaborative process.
What would you like audiences to notice about the design?
In our production, Caliban has a child-like quality brought on by captivity and trauma. He habitually draws himself as a stick-figure, with two extra arms, referencing the drum sticks to which is he so fond and inspired by the Vitruvian Man. The drawings adorn the walls of his cave from which he drums – but there are a few more sneaky uses of the symbol, including hanging from the bell on the sundial.
The other thing that people might notice (although unlikely) is the recycling of old set designs. We tried to create the show as sustainably as possible, and I was able to use bits from some of my past shows including Tokyo Rose (Burnt Lemon) and It’s True, It’s True, It’s True (Breach).
Tempest is billed as ‘Shakespeare as you’ve never experienced it before’. Has the show whetted your appetite for more Shakespeare?
I would love to design more Shakespeare. It has much the same appeal for designers as it does for actors. The dream would be to design a reimagining of Twelfth Night, but at an American College, about football, with Vinnie Jones.
Tempest runs from 11 March to 3 April 2022 at the Pleasance Theatre, 72 Albert Embankment, London SE1 7TP, with performances Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7.30pm, matinees Saturdays at 3pm and Sundays at 5pm. Tickets from £12-20. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!