Bard’s wind of change in Sheffield

Tom Kay in GB Theatre's production of The Tempest coming to South Street Park ampitheatre, Aug 1-4
Tom Kay in GB Theatre's production of The Tempest coming to South Street Park ampitheatre, Aug 1-4

THE Tempest, which blows into Sheffield this week for open-air performances at the new South Street Amphitheatre, is directed by distinguished actor Jack Shepherd.

He is best known as TV cop Wycliffe but also has an extensive career writing and directing and is well versed in Shakespeare. As both actor and director, the more you work on a Shakespeare play the better, he believes.

“It’s the second time I have directed The Tempest,” he says. “Previously it was with a small-scale touring company and that’s when I discovered the play. This time we had a very tight rehearsal period and it made it a lot easier. I could take it a lot further and see through some of the ideas from before. I played Hamlet when I was 33 and I reckon I got about half of it right, a quarter was OK and the other quarter I missed completely.

“I wish I had done the role three times in all, once when I was 19 and inexperienced, another at the age I did it and then later when I was in my thirties and forties. You have to know it well and to have spoken it a lot of times. That was the way Olivier did Richard III, he toured it round the world so by the time he came to film it he had already done it 100 times.”

There will be no frills about this production of The Tempest. It is being toured by the GB Theatre Company who specialise in costumes of the period and the minimum of sets. Besides, it is not a play that lends itself to gimmicks such as performing it in Nazi uniforms, he says.

“The Tempest is a play about hallucination and delusion and magic, and in every scene nothing is what it seems to be. It demands the audience use their imagination – as they did in Shakespeare’s time when there were no sets.

“With all the computer technology these days and films people are losing that a bit,” he suggests. “I grew up listening to the radio and whatever I heard I could see everything. As a boy, when we were playing out near my home in Leeds our imaginations ran riot. Computer games are seductive but you lose that quality.

“The play is to do with imagination, shifting reality and things not being what they are. The plot is very simple: a man comes to a desert island trying to sort out his desire for revenge against the people who put him there and also to provide a suitable husband for his daughter.”

What makes that situation extraordinary, he says, are the little matters of having a spirit (Ariel) buzzing about and a monster (Caliban) out the back.

“Once you have created a world where that’s possible it’s difficult to bring it into the modern world and harder for the audience to identify with the factors of reality.”

Performing in the open air helps the sense of unreality. “I have directed at The Globe in London and written a play for it and know about performing in the open air. It’s difficult to play anything with nuance, you have to say what you mean. Intimate and quiet scenes of modern theatre won’t work.

“Tony Harrison (the poet and playwright) once said that the early dramatists wrote in verse in order to be heard and it was only when it developed into Shakespeare that it was appreciated for aesthetic reasons.

“It’s easier for the actors to get the play out through verse. If you get the verse right it’s like surfing, you ride the crest of the wave through to the end. It’s the opposite of film acting. I have been working with David Tennant and we talked about this and how on stage given the chance you might get most of it right but it’s so difficult to do and it might just be once. If you are in a TV film you can learn your lines on the plane over to Hungary or wherever the location is and no-one would know the difference.”

Shepherd has been playing Tennant’s father in a new three-part drama, The Politician’s Husband, for the BBC. A follow-up to Paula Milne’s 1995 The Politician’s Wife, it will explore the complexities of a political marriage and the consequences when a wife becomes more successful than her husband.

In recent years Tennant has given a modern spin to Hamlet but Shepherd favours a more traditional approach to the Bard. “My own feeling of doing Shakespeare is a bit like the movement in music over the last two or three years of performing on original instruments. I have a feeling there will be a similar trend in the theatre of bringing things to life as it would have been done originally.”

There are performances of The Tempest at South Street Amphitheatre tonight (Thursday, August 2) and Saturday.