A kind of magic: Andy Room talks about The Tempest

Andy Room has joined The Tempest as Associate Director (Magic), with the brief to work with the team to help create the enchanting elements of the show. On our journey to a party at the end of the world this summer, Andy’s giving us an insight into what goes into making the magic happen…

I have the gloriously fun challenge of co-devising a magical ‘language’ for the world of The Tempest, in addition to designing specific magical set-pieces. Creating magic for a promenade production brings with it a huge set of challenges and parameters: Where will the audience be in relation to the stage? Will the illusion work in the daylight matinees as well as the darker evening performances? Will the illusion coalesce with the set and costume design? Will it all be weatherproof?

It has been paramount from the outset to let the text lead the way; I’m always so disappointed when I see classic magic tricks shoehorned into a production without much thought or originality. Shakespeare provides clear indications as to when a moment requires a specific effect, but also highlights the more surreal ‘otherwordly’ moments which would be enhanced by magic.

It also made sense to me to look at what would have been available to the King’s Men for the play’s (suspected) first outing in 1611. Whether it was on the exposed Globe stage or in the newly-built indoor theatre at Blackfriars, they would have been limited to hand-operated stage mechanisms and devious sleight of hand, both literally and theatrically. With this in mind, I sought out a copy of The Discoverie of Witchcraft, a sixteenth-century grimoire which outlines common Elizabethan practices for casting spells, as well as exposing the secrets behind contemporary magic tricks – many of which endure today. It is considered to be the first instructional magic book; naturally, the magic nerd in me has been having a whale of a time.

Inigo Jones, designer of 17th century masques, and architect of our venue at St Paul’s Covent Garden.

The tome revealed the comparative impotence of a magician, and the necessity of raising a spirit to do one’s bidding – which has solidified the role of Ariel and her nymphs for us, as well as the limitation of Prospero’s ‘art’. The four Elements are significant in witchcraft – which makes sense considering Prospero’s obsession with having wood fetched for the fire, Ariel as a spirit of ‘air’, and Prospero’s description of Miranda as ‘water’ and Caliban as ‘Earth’.

Amongst other things, the book highlights the role of poppets – the precursor to voodoo dolls, and etymological root of ‘puppets’. In terms of magical secrets, the book unveils sleight-of-hand techniques, specially-constructed props and ways of misdirecting the audience to achieve all kinds of effects. We have taken these methods as a starting point for our own illusions.

Frequent discussions with the director and set designer have taken place to make sure the magic is cohesive with their ideas for the set and the style of the show. With the Masques of Inigo Jones as inspiration for both, it is important for the magic to feel at home, both stylistically and practically – can the set and the viewing angles accommodate the effect? There is a sort-of Venn diagram between the set, the style and the magic – and thankfully, there seems to be a large overlap in the middle!

The next stage is to start building and testing our effects; what we currently have will by no means be the final result, so the fun practical part happens now, before rehearsals begin. I will then start to teach some sleight-of-hand to the cast and we will see the magic come to life. I cannot wait!

Tickets for The Tempest are on-sale now! You can grab them right here.