Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-Upon-Avon, UK.
This inventive multimedia production of The Tempest,
directed by Oxford Stage Company Artistic Director, Rupert Goold, and
starring Patrick Stewart as Prospero, is selling out fast. I suspect
that a fairly large percentage of the audience are there just to see
Stewart strut his stuff, some because he is an acclaimed and classically
trained Shakespearean actor, and others because he will always be their
precious Captain Picard. Indeed, I spotted several theatregoers
sporting Star Trek t-shirts, and a couple with 'I (heart) Patrick
Stewart' emblazoned on their chests. So, Stewart is the main selling
point - but there are other wonders to see here.
The play begins with a voiceover of the shipping forecast and a
projection of stormy seas. A large porthole opens up in the screen and
we see the mariners looking out into the storm and trying to keep their
feet as the ship is tossed about. We get our first glimpse of the
terrifying figure of Ariel, and then the porthole/peephole is moved
upwards, so that we can see Ferdinand leaping from the ship crying,
‘Hell is empty, And all the devils are here’.
We then move to the island where Prospero and Miranda have been
shipwrecked for the past twelve years. But this is no ‘lush and lusty’
paradise where ‘everything [is] advantageous to life’. Instead, we see a
barren wasteland of rocks and frozen ground, where blizzards rage
outside of Prospero’s crooked plank cabin. Living in such a place, it is
easy to understand why Prospero is so desperate to leave this isle, and
how his art may be all that is keeping him and Miranda alive. There is
magic here but it is a dark magic, and one which tends towards death
rather than life.
Patrick Stewart gives a smooth and powerful performance as Prospero,
gliding through the play unhindered and unsurprised. He uses Ariel
almost regretfully, and with an element of fear and gratitude, as well
as forcefulness. He rages at Caliban (even spitting in his food), and
yet at the end of the play accepts Caliban’s remorseful embrace,
speaking to him as one would a fractious child. This is a man who has of
necessity become hard, but whose true nature is one of gentle humour
and forgiveness. This is rather amusingly demonstrated when he asks
rather than demands the return of his Dukedom from Antonio. His love for
his daughter is obvious and touchingly tender, and any sternness
towards her very tongue-in-cheek.
Mariah Gale as Miranda is curious in every sense of the word. A
childlike teenager who seems a little dim-witted and tender-hearted,
looking in wonderment at the mundane but unastonished by the presence of
a powerful spirit, a deformed slave, and a magician father. Her
adoration of Ferdinand (Nick Court) is rather amusing, and he in turn
appears touchingly amused by her attentions. The marriage blessing of
Miranda and Ferdinand by Iris, Ceres and Juno is turned into a ritual of
cleansing and binding by three native goddesses. With quick movements
and sharp-sounding lyrics, they sing and dance their way through an
elemental ceremony, whilst Prospero looks on smiling. The precision in
this scene is wonderful and helps to build up yet another layer of magic
within the play.
Many things are turned on their head in this production. The casting of
handsome-by-any-standards John Light as the savage and deformed Caliban
seems a little odd, even with the addition of a grubby face, some
bizarre goggles, ragged clothes and a bow-legged gait. Light gives an
energetic performance, but comes across more as a misunderstood man than
a monster. Caliban is indeed a man whose native ways have been deemed
wrong and who has been forced to conform to customs that he does not
understand. Perhaps Goold is asking us to question our preconceptions of
the character and to look at him afresh.
The real stroke of genius in this production is the casting of Julian
Bleach as Ariel, and the creation of his character as a dark and moody
vision of death, with white skin and black robes; upright, angular and
terrifying. Too many productions portray Ariel as a fluffy and
mischievous sprite, along the lines of Puck - but why should this be?
Ariel is an enslaved spirit, tormented and unhappy, released from his
past imprisonment only to become controlled by Prospero. No wonder he
looks dark around the eyes. Here he carries an hourglass, one suspects
not just to keep time for Prospero but also to count the hours until he
can have freedom from his unceasing toil. Ariel is made slightly more
sinister by his constant unexpected presence onstage. His head pops up
through a burning brazier; a moment later he appears behind a door. His
most horrific appearance, however, is when he explodes through the body
of a slaughtered seal that has been delivered as a feast to the
shipwrecked company; bloody and bone-covered in the guise of a harpy.
Bleach gives a faultless and entrancing performance, fully fleshing out
this weird spirit.
The comedy scenes between the regionally-accented and slightly camp
Trinculo (Craig Gazey) and Stephano (Joseph Alessi) should have worked
better than they did. The audience chuckled but never really lapsed into
full-blown laughter. These scenes seemed out of sync with the tone of
the rest of the production and fell rather flat. Conversely, the scenes
featuring Antonio, Alonso, Sebastian and Gonzalo were extremely amusing,
due mainly to the wonderful delivery and comic timing of John Hopkins
(Sebastian) and James Hayes (Gonzalo).
Goold’s production doesn’t really build to a climax and a release,
instead gliding through each turn of events, from the storm warning
through to Prospero’s closing speech. Yet, this is still a play full of
excitement and innovation, layered and highly satisfying, which starts
strongly and continues to deliver throughout. I highly recommend it.
This review was originally published on The Shakespeare Revue.