Friday, 18 August 2006

The Tempest - RSC 2006

The Tempest
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. 

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