When staging a production of a William Shakespeare play, the question often arises of its relevance to a modern audience. Many film and stage productions have provided modernised versions to the Bard's work to spark contemporary curiosity, with the innate power of these plays successfully enduring under the most unlikely presentations, as the success of The Globe's international Shakespeare season earlier this year will attest. But what about the players bringing this material to life? How do they relate to the Kings, Emperors and other characters who were created centuries ago? The new documentary Tempest attempts to tackle that problem by bringing Shakespeare to a group of people hungry for something far removed from their immediate surroundings.
Tempest opens with footage of last year's London riots, playing under soundbites from inner-city teens that reiterate their sense of the persecution and lack of opportunities that blight their lives. Directors Rob Curry and Anthony Fletcher clearly intend to alter our perception of such youngsters, and their film follows 17 amateur thespians as they take their first faltering steps into the world of Shakespeare, with a performance of The Tempest. This play formed part of Danny Boyle's Olympic Games opening ceremony (a night that felt like an act of healing for the capital, coming a year after the aforementioned riots) and it's a good choice for this group to tackle, offering broad comedy, romance and drama, and themes that they can understand within the context of their own experiences.
The manner in which these teenagers reconfigure Shakespeare's play to better understand it is one of the most interesting aspects of Tempest. Early rehearsals show them struggling with the archaic language, but they successfully break the play down into simple terms, playing scenes with their own words, and gradually get to grips with the emotional truths at the heart of the play. In interview sequences, they speak intelligently and thoughtfully about their characters and motivations, and one of the most striking ideas is their decision to have seven different actresses playing Ariel simultaneously, as they can't conceive of Prospero's imprisoned spirit as a single role. Through such choices, they make The Tempest their own.
There's a lot to enjoy in watching this unfold, particularly the infectious enthusiasm and growing confidence that the cast exhibits. They are young men and women who are embracing an opportunity to express themselves and taste something new, but the rarity of such opportunities is a problem the film only hints at. Tempest attempts comment on deficiencies in the education system and community programmes that are failing youngsters from disadvantaged areas, but in the film's slight and occasionally choppy structure it's only a fleeting aside, with the filmmakers failing to lend it any weight. Nevertheless, the blossoming of these young actors in Shakespeare's world is in itself a powerful argument for the continued relevance of his works, and the vital importance of a proper arts education for today's youth.