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In the eye of The Tempest

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Jeremy Mortimer | 12:56 UK Time, Tuesday, 1 May 2012

J M W Turner: Orfordness


Producer Jeremy Mortimer explains how a unique sound-world was created for next Sunday's broadcast of Shakespeare's The Tempest.

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,

Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices

That, if I then had waked after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open, and show riches

Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked,

I cried to dream again.

The Tempest 3.2.148-156

Jeremy Mortimer and Jenni Burnett experiment with sound effects

Jeremy Mortimer and Jenni Burnett experiment with sound effects

Caliban’s speech felt like a really good cue for a radio production of The Tempest. Where better to relish those aural riches ? Sound Designer Cal Knightley (and no, Cal isn’t short for Caliban) and I started planning the recording back in November last year, ready for a five-day recording session in January. I told him that in my mind Caliban’s island was somewhere off the British coast. I had visited Orford Ness last summer and was really taken by the brackish lagoons, the shingle and the bleak North Sea. So we ordered a whole load of sand and shingle to be delivered to the drama studio, and I started collecting reeds, grasses and some large logs. 

Perhaps more than any other Shakespeare play, The Tempest calls for music. There are lots of songs, a masque, and plenty of magic moments – all of which need scoring. I knew that I wanted to go for a folk feel for the music.  I had worked before with cellist Sarah Moody and I remembered that she was a composer with a flair for folk. Sarah is part of The Devil’s Violin Company and they agreed to divide the composition amongst the three of them. Luke Carver Goss (accordion) provided the music and – often drunken - songs for Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo, Oliver Wilson-Dickson (violin) scored Ariel’s songs (‘Full Fathom Five’ and ‘Where the Bee Sucks’) and Sarah wrote the Ferdinand and Miranda themes and pulled everything together so that the music worked seamlessly. We had a half-day recording session in the drama studio, with the cast singing live with the instruments. 

Gerard McDermot plays the washing machine tube

Gerard McDermot plays the washing machine tube

The music – particularly the wonderful and weird musical effects with harmonics and scrapes – provided a great basis for some of the magic moments. But I felt that we still needed something eerie for Ariel. Luckily Gerard McDermott (who plays Stephano) came to the studio with the very thing. His son had found a tube from an abandoned washing machine and had discovered that if you twirl it around your head it delivers a wonderful ‘whoooo’ sound – the faster the twirl the higher the pitch. And I brought in the steel top of a garden table – which sounded just like a thunder sheet. 


Al Weaver (Ferdinand) and Rose Leslie (Miranda) fighting over logs


We were almost there with the sounds – but still needed something for Ariel’s Spirits. There are a couple moments in the play when they are called upon to magic things up for the characters, first a table covered in delicious dishes, and then a collection of gorgeous cloaks and gowns. On one of the recording days we had a visit from a group of drama students, who were brilliant at playing invisible waiters and costumiers, and finally created the sound of a horde of wild dogs.


Studio Manager Jenni Burnett worked with the actors, trudging through the shingle, getting drenched in stagnant ponds, throwing rapiers to the ground, and finding just the right sound for chess pieces.

So much for all our sounds – but the real work was done by the actors. We had a wonderful cast, led by the brilliant David Warner who brings real poignancy to Prospero. As Prospero says, ‘Our revels now are ended’ – but I hope you enjoy the play.


  • The Tempest is broadcast on Sunday 6 May at 830pm. For full cast details, visit the programme page
  • You can download the play as a podcast by visiting this page after transmission. 
  • Read background details and a synopsis.
  • Listen to 'Come unto these yellow sands' from the production's incidental music.



The cast and members of The Devil’s Violin Company in the studio

The cast and members of The Devil’s Violin Company in the studio






  • Comment number 1.

    Since the figurative 'magik' of a sound is often the spectacle of an effect unmediated by the hinterland of the workaday means to accomplish it, the elucidation of one can be at the illustrative diminuation of the other.


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