REVIEW: The Tempestuous (Basement Theatre)

Review by Erin O'Flaherty

Photography by Kate Little

[Promising Pastiche]

Award-winning comedian Penny Ashton has once again delved into classic texts to present their tropes in a new light. A mash-up of Shakespeare’s plays and modern-day reality TV, The Tempestuous is a funny and clever romp. Replete with cross-dressing, disguises, bawdy jokes, puns, wordplay, and musical numbers, it is an excellently written script that Shakespeare himself would be proud of.

Ashton enters the stage in a beautiful Elizabethan gown (impeccably designed by Elizabeth Whiting) and begins to set the scene in rhyming couplets and Shakespearean verbiage. We are in Italy (one of Shakespeare’s favourite settings). The king is dead, his brother has replaced him on the throne, and his beautiful daughter must be married off. Ashton proceeds, over the next hour and a half, to weave for us a story of strong-willed women and weak-witted men. And witches, of course.

Shakespeare wrote some epic female characters in his time (although they were performed by male performers), and Ashton updates this feminist bent with slightly more modern sensibilities. Shakespearean comedies farcically overturn the status quo before restoring it in the conclusion; here the natural order restored is one of feminine empowerment and true love.

There’s no need to be intimidated by the use of Shakespeare’s language for Ashton is clearly a master of it. She cleverly weaves modern phrases into the style of Elizabethan speech with precise comic timing, and hides lines ripped straight from Shakespeare throughout this new text. Every line is clear and each character is distinct – which is saying something, considering Ashton brings to life no less than thirteen over the course of the story. 

The Tempestuous provides the experience of seeing a Shakespeare for the first time, though performed solo. This adds a fun gimmick and Ashton’s incredible performance makes the fast changes in character (through voice, body and space alone) look easy, but I almost wanted to feel how hard it truly must have been. Not only was Ashton playing multiple characters in dialogue with one another, but then some of those characters don disguises and are playing parts of their own. This is such a wonderful farce that would have been even funnier if we had been made viscerally aware of just how absurd it is. There was one beautiful moment when Ashton entered the stage, only to realise she was using the wrong voice, so she was forced to turn around and enter again. It was moments like these – the genuine mistakes – that made me really laugh because it highlighted the utter silliness of it all.

It was partly this sense of meta-theatricality that was lacking for me. Not that there was much of a fourth wall to speak of, but one of Shakespeare’s greatest tropes was poking fun at theatre itself. A solo Shakespearean romp such as this would have been the perfect place to bring in that sense of self-awareness, allowing the slickness of performance to drop away so we could see the farce of one actor playing thirteen characters. The moments where Ashton was forced to authentically respond to a mistake or to the audience gave me a delightful glimpse of what this might have looked like, and I wanted more.

Though the show is in great shape for its first ever run, overall I wanted more. More props, more costumes, more fanfare, more parody, more use of the small set. The times when we got big physical gags from Ashton were some of the best, but only a few were peppered throughout. Some of the musical numbers (though very entertaining and beautifully performed) felt like they wanted to be bigger, grander. To conjure the epic-ness of such archetypal characters and stories is no small feat, and I felt that The Tempestuous fell just a little short. I would love to see more elements added and a real heavy lean into the farce as the play continues to develop.

Nevertheless, Penny Ashton’s latest offering is a funny and smart homage to perhaps the most famous Western playwright. If you love Shakespeare, or just want to see the Bard in a new light, this is the show for you.

The Tempestuous plays Basement Theatre 13-17th June 2023

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