The Tempest, The Globe, 7 May 2013
The standard stage was almost doubled in size by the addition of extensions to the front and sides. This also vastly increased the circumference of the stage front meaning that more groundlings could claim a position close to the action. This was unusual for a play where most scenes involve no more than four characters.
There were also three large rocks, which were marbled with the same colouring as the stage pillars. A discovery space was provided on the upper gallery accessed by a stage left stairway. Grips were attached to the stage right back wall to facilitate climbing.
The warm-up musicians were followed by a cheeky Geordie chappie (Trevor Fox) who reminded us to turn our phones off and not take photographs. He then jokingly assured us that the performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona would start shortly. This was a subtle jest at the expense of the Colin Morgan fans gathered at the front of the yard, for whom a mix-up of that sort would have been a disaster.
The storm began with loud banging on drums and metal sheets in the music gallery either side of the upper discovery space (1.1). Surround sound was achieved by using the walkway behind the middle gallery as a thunder run.
The ship’s crew lurched from side to side, falling over and pulling on ropes to steady themselves. At one point they leant back as if tracking a huge wave threatening to overwhelm them.
Because no amplified sound was used, and also partly because Globe actors constantly speak loud enough to combat aircraft noise, all the dialogue in the scene was clearly audible.
This was interesting from a theatrical point of view because it demonstrated that this scene did not need to be drowned out by the storm, as is often the case when speaker sound effects are deployed.
A figure we later discovered was Ferdinand (Joshua James) knelt and prayed in fear as the storm raged around the ship.
The storm scene was supplemented by a large model ship which was carried through the yard at head height, brought on stage and then taken down the stage left steps just as the passengers cried “We split, we split!” The offstage sinking of the model ship suggested the fate of the vessel being portrayed onstage.
Towards the end of the storm, Prospero (Roger Allam) appeared with his magic staff and cloak on the upper discovery space to oversee the tempest he had conjured.
As the last of the crew disappeared, Miranda (Jessie Buckley) walked up the same steps and looked backwards at the departing mariners to deliver her first line, pitying their fate and imploring her father to stop the storm (1.2). She wore a tattered light green dress that appeared to be fashioned from a larger remnant, under which she sported greyish cut-off trousers.
Prospero laid down his mantle at the front of the stage and placed his staff on top as if the mantle were only its cushioning. We now had a clearer view of the ragged clothes he had lived in for the past twelve years: a filthy white shirt, dark slashed trunk hose and boots with downturned tops.
The main problem with the production became apparent very early on. Roger Allam was quite content when playing within his comfort zone of affable comedy. But as soon as he was required to step outside that zone, he resorted to ‘doing acting’ and was unconvincing.
The disjunction between these two modes could be seen when he recounted his life story to his daughter.
Prospero was almost jaunty and affable as he began to tell his story to Miranda and was genuinely happy when she said that she remembered having serving women.
But when Prospero reached “Twelve year since…” he paused, and spoke the rest slowly in an unnatural, almost staccato delivery, as he looked off meaningfully into the distance.
The transition between natural flow and stilted technique was startling, as if playing Prospero’s darker side placed him out of his depth.
Prospero launched into his gag about Miranda’s paternity and the relief with which Allam returned to his comfort zone was palpable as his performance resumed its habitual ease.
But another lurch was coming. Allam paused again for effect after describing his brother as “perfidious”, accompanied by yet more portentous staring.
Allam’s Prospero was full of regret but there was no darkness and no menace in his characterisation. This compared poorly with Jonathan Slinger’s scary Prospero, who on his first appearance stood glaring for a long time before spitting with anger when he spoke.
Instead of giving us a Prospero who had brooded for twelve years and was now close to wreaking his revenge on his enemies, Roger Allam gave us a pompous senior civil servant on gardening leave.
He hugged Miranda at “O, a cherubim thou wast that did preserve me” thereby emphasising his paternal warmth rather than his sibling quarrel.
Prospero put Miranda to sleep and looked out for Ariel (Colin Morgan). Shaker sound effects rippled around the galleries to indicate his magical omnipresence. He sneaked up unnoticed behind Prospero, who jolted with shock when Ariel spoke.
Colin Morgan’s Ariel had short, black slicked hair, which contrasted with his light violet long-sleeve top, covered with long wispy, plumage-like strands. He wore blue breeches under a white apron that extended almost down to his white boots. While not a specific animal, he was vaguely bird-like, which made sense of his ability to flit around.
Colin Morgan was for many spectators the main attraction of the production. However, there was a slight Igor-ness in his delivery, which made him a visually attractive but dramatically unconvincing presence.
Prospero was content with Ariel’s efforts with the storm, but announced “there’s more work”. Allam’s comic instincts made this a humorous statement rather than a burdensome injunction from a martinet.
Ariel’s complaint about this provoked Prospero’s retort “How now? Moody?”, which was only mildly chiding. This invited comparisons with Jonathan Slinger’s vituperative fury when delivering the same line.
Despite Morgan’s reliance on making a visual impact as Ariel, there was a brief moment of interesting character development when he shrieked on being reminded by Prospero of his torturous imprisonment by Sycorax.
Discerning a high-work rate behind a performance is always gratifying. Right from the start it was plain that Jimmy Garnon had put great effort into his characterisation of Caliban.
When Prospero and Miranda visited him, Caliban rose from behind a rock, his body painted in shades of red, marbled exactly like the geology of the island. This was slightly reminiscent of the skin paint applied to the Caliban in Julie Taymor’s film. His reference to the “red plague” hinted that this colouration could have been the result of a condition particular to the island, causing its sufferers to take on the colour of its rocks.
His voice was coarse and guttural with a mixture of assorted accents that gave it a vaguely foreign air without fitting within any recognisable language. He loped barefoot on the front of his feet affording a strange animal quality to his gait.
Caliban cursed Prospero, accentuating his revolt by spitting at the audience, stealing a drink in a plastic cup from a groundling, downing it and then throwing away the cup (hopefully planted).
As if to seal his villainy in our minds, the skulking creature delighted in the idea of peopling the island with Calibans.
Prospero and Miranda retreated to their vantage point up in the gallery.
Accompanied by other spirit helpers, Ariel entered singing Full Fathom Five. He led Ferdinand up and down, remaining invisible to him and guiding his movements.
Prospero enjoyed loosing his daughter to Ferdinand and she boggled in disbelief at the young man’s “brave form”. However, rather than an athletic Adonis, this Ferdinand was slightly nerdish and spindly, perhaps justifying Prospero’s subsequent comment about his relative inadequacies.
But he was of obvious good heart. As a caring father, Prospero must have prized this quality in Ferdinand above any other consideration when arranging the match for his daughter.
Prospero descended and, having provoked Ferdinand with accusations of usurpation, took control of his threatening sword. At first the sword was frozen in mid air and Ferdinand struggled to move it as if the blade were fixed in rock.
Prospero then caused the sword to mirror the movements of his own staff. For a while Prospero played, causing Ferdinand’s weapon to move from side to side, finally forcing it to the ground, decisively disarming the young man.
Miranda clung to Prospero’s ankle, pleading with him to stop, as he ordered her to “Hang not on my garments.”
The introduction of the characters in the royal party began in undistinguished fashion with standard versions of the characters: the elderly Gonzalo (Pip Donaghy), the younger jokers Antonio (Jason Baughan) and Sebastian (William Mannering), and the careworn Alonso (Peter Hamilton Dyer) (2.1).
But an interesting note was struck when Sebastian said “we prosper well in our return”: the spirits in the galleries began whispering “prosper.. Prospero” as if bringing to life the echo of Prospero’s name in that remark.
Ariel put everyone to sleep except Sebastian and Antonio, leaving the latter to tempt the former with the idea of killing his brother. He then arranged for the sleepers to awake just as swords were poised over them.
Caliban threw away his burden of logs, scattering them to the back of the stage, cursing Prospero (2.2). The arrival of Trinculo drove him to hide under his gabardine.
Trinculo (Trevor Fox) wore a full jester’s motley with pointed shoes and large bicorn hat. He stood over a female groundling at the front of the yard and squeezed water out of his prominent codpiece and later pulled a small fish from his jacket to remind us of his recent escape from the wreck. He subsequently removed two more fish, each one larger than its predecessor, turning this into a running gag.
He spoke of the “storm brewing”, looked up into the bright, cloudless sky over Southwark and gave a series of knowing looks to the audience, peering up at the sky again as if the play text should have caused the weather to obey its implied stage direction.
After discovering the strange figure under the cloth, he smelt Caliban’s bottom, which was the source of “a very ancient and fish-like smell”. He climbed under the large covering, his feet pointing in the opposite direction to Caliban’s.
Stephano (Sam Cox) entered singing, a noise which frightened Caliban into attempting an escape. Normally this sequence is staged with Caliban and Trinculo remaining on the ground. But here, instead of remaining hidden under the coat, Caliban stood up so that he was bare down to the waist and pulled the still fully concealed Trinculo along behind him like the rear end of a pantomime horse. This fantastic vision caused Stephano to look at his bottle in disbelief as he contemplated this “monster of the isle”.
The “monster” returned to ground again enabling Stephano to pour in drink at both ends. When it reared up once more, Caliban struck the back end of the beast, still hiding Trinculo, with a stick.
Back on the ground Stephano pulled Trinculo’s legs to extract him from the coat and ended up in a compromising position on top of him. This unsophisticated crudity was not funny.
Caliban knelt before the bearer of the “celestial liquor” swearing him allegiance. He began to sing about his freedom, but spoke the first words of his song tentatively, looking round to see if any of Prospero’s agents were poised to punish him for his thoughtcrime. He rapidly gained confidence when he realised he could express a desire to have “a new master” and the first half came to an end as he celebrated his liberty.
The second half began with Ferdinand carrying some heavy, real logs from one side of the stage to the other (3.1). He addressed us cheerfully, saying that the hard work was a pleasure because it was undertaken for Miranda’s sake.
He beamed when he reported that Miranda did not want him to labour, because he saw this as proof that she loved him.
Miranda appeared and tried to carry the logs for Ferdinand, causing him to run back to the pile with a worried “No…” as if she were spoiling the game that gave him so much satisfaction.
Further confirmation of Miranda’s love caused him to take up a log, grin at us, and bear it easily to the other side.
This was a delightfully complicit inclusion of the audience in his simple joy at being adored, a seemingly novel experience that he would not take for granted.
Their ensuing betrothal was overseen by a contented Prospero.
The rebel trio reappeared in a state of advanced drunkeness, with Caliban’s wide-eyed, forty-yard stare distinguishing him as the most intoxicated (3.2). Ariel stood on the balustrade of the left lower gallery and scrutinised them a while before bounding on stage to ventriloquise Trinculo’s voice. He clambered nimbly from vantage point to vantage point, making use of the underside of the steps down from the platform as well as monkey bars underneath it.
Stephano became excited at the part of Caliban’s plan that involved Miranda, stuttering out “Is it so brave a lass?”
Caliban explained how they could kill Prospero. He took a rock and used a groundling as a stand-in to demonstrate how to drive a nail into Prospero’s head.
Around this time, planes and helicopters were flying overhead. When Caliban warned that Prospero had “brave utensils” he looked up at the sky and listened to the aircraft noise, drawing the others’ attention to it, as if this were Prospero’s agents high in the sky about some business. They stared up into the night for some time until the noises subsided. Though slightly laboured, this proved a humorous and effective way of dealing with the Globe’s noise pollution problem.
In line with the production’s general downplaying of deep moments, Caliban’s speech about the isle being full of noises was not as moving as it could have been.
The royal party saw some “strange shapes” bring on a table bearing a banquet (3.3). But before they could feast, the food exploded in a flash of hot bright flame, the heat wave from which reached the galleries, and the trick table revolved to display a representation of the charred remains.
Ariel confronted the “three men of sin” on high platform shoes shaped like claws with spirit helpers operating his wide, black, harpy wings. His head was covered with a large bird-like skull, his breeches looked like downy feathers and he had a breast plate with harpy dugs.
The combination of these two effects was truly spectacular.
Prospero congratulated himself on having his enemies “in my power” but with the vengeful aspect of his character underplayed by the affable Allam, his words conveyed little real menace.
Ferdinand had passed Prospero’s test, but Miranda’s protective father was still keen to emphasise to Ferdinand the importance of not breaking her “virgin-knot” (4.1). This subject continued to prove a light-hearted source of comedy that Allam seemed to feel more at home with than Prospero’s darker side.
The masque began with the brightly coloured Iris (Sarah Sweeney) calling on Ceres (Amanda Wilkin), who appeared in a white outfit with a neckpiece comprising fruits of the field. Surprisingly, Ariel took on the role of Juno, with a neckpiece of peacock feathers.
Prospero apparently mouthed Iris’ injunction that the marriage should not be consummated “till Hymen’s torch be lighted” in another comic touch highlighting his concern. There was no dance of the reapers, but the romantic shower of confetti that rained down from the upper galleries was more than compensation.
Prospero cried out that he had forgotten the “foul conspiracy” of Caliban’s and his associates. However, there was something actorly about his surprise and outrage that undercut any sense of real alarm.
This strange absence from his own role meant that “Our revels now are ended” similarly lacked impact. This speech is generally Prospero at his most contemplative, an aspect of the character that Allam did not at all emphasise. It said something that Helen Mirren’s Prospera was more convincing in her “I will plague them all, even to roaring” than Allam.
Prospero stood on the discovery space to oversee the hounding of the rebels by skeletal puppet dogs guided by Ariel and his helpers. These were very effective.
With his master’s plan now coming to fruition, Ariel persuaded Prospero to turn away from vengeance (5.1). This did not feel like a major turning point in the story, because the vengeful aspect of Prospero’s character had not been accentuated.
Although he announced “yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury do I take part”, this Prospero’s consistent absence of fury deprived the sequence of significance.
When Allam boomed that he had “bedimmed the noontide sun” it seemed very unlikely that he actually had.
Prospero abjured his rough magic. His cloak was taken from him by a helper and he placed his staff on top of it in a repeat of the ritual at the start of the performance.
Prospero enjoyed toying with Alonso before revealing his son Ferdinand playing Miranda at chess in a ground-level discovery space. With her mind whirling at the sight of the new arrivals, Miranda sat next to father to wonder at this “brave new world”. Prospero’s reply “’Tis new to thee” conveyed his aspiration for Miranda to discover more of the world on her release from the island.
Caliban cringed when he and his companions were released and brought before Prospero. Again, the light tone of the production meant that Prospero’s “this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine” was not freighted with meaning and had no impact.
Once pardoned, Caliban scampered along next to Prospero like a chimp. He stood up at full height and growled at Stephano as he passed him, angry at having been his dupe.
Prospero picked up his staff placed it behind his neck and snapped it with his arms. He looked round to where Ariel was, but with his magic gone Prospero was unable to see him. This moment represented Ariel’s liberation.
Allam told us that his charms were now all o’erthrown. And he was duly released by our indulgence.
The production was competent, innovative in places, but ultimately disappointing. There was a large gap where a thrilling Prospero should have stood.
Roger Allam’s downplaying of Prospero’s anger and vengeance diluted the impact of his final decision to show clemency. With the focus on Prospero as a father, the play became a city comedy about a man trying to marry off his daughter.
1 Henry IV, Showcase Cinema Bluewater, 25 July 2011
1 Henry IV, Greenwich Picturehouse, 6 August 2011
2 Henry IV, Greenwich Picturehouse, 7 August 2011
2 Henry IV, Showcase Cinema Bluewater, 18 August 2011
Seeing a play at the Globe is a 360° experience, especially in the yard. The open-air auditorium provides uniform lighting of audience and actors, and everything about the theatre engenders a real feeling of connection with the onstage action. One is left with abiding memories of an all-encompassing spectacle of sight, sound and smell.
So there is inevitably a process of adjustment when viewing a recording of a Globe play on a cinema screen. No matter how big and detailed the image and whatever surround sound effects are deployed, compared with one’s own memories of being there, it feels like observing the play through a telescope.
The dislocation is even more pronounced than for other theatre broadcasts, such as NT Live. Because the latter are mostly from traditional theatres with the audience in darkness, the screen version more closely approximates to the theatrical experience.
I spent a total of 12 hours viewing both of the three-hour productions twice. This was rewarding not just because the plays were very good, but also because extended exposure facilitated an adjustment to the 2D digital version, making it possible to appreciate the recordings on their own terms.
The brilliance of the productions and their performances shone through. Revisiting these Henry IV plays felt like getting reacquainted with old friends, with Roger Allam’s Falstaff still the life and soul of the party.
I was particularly struck by the start of Part Two where Jack entered to great acclaim from the people of London. The citizens were all singing a ballad praising him as the hero of the battle of Shrewsbury, despite the fact he had been an arrant coward, providing an excellent example of the power of rumour addressed in the prologue. Falstaff gestured with his hand alternately raising and subduing the cheers of welcome from the audience.
The quality of the direction and camerawork were excellent. There were only a couple of fluffed lines throughout the entire six hours. In a way they added to the raw authenticity of this live performance recording.
Sometimes, however, the vagaries of live performance throw up moments of unintentional comedy.
During the first half of Part One, a young man in the lower gallery on the stage left side could be seen listening to music through earphones and strumming the balustrade in front of him with his fingers, completely ignoring the play. Other times when he was not so active, he rested face down on the balustrade. He and the rest of his party left at the interval.
The Mummers’ Plays that began each of the two parts were not recorded, which was regrettable as they set the scene in the theatre very effectively. This was probably because the cameras were set up to record action on the main stage and so could not be used to film the small stage in the yard where these simple rustic entertainments took place. However, the start of Part Two showed the end of its Mummers’ Play, with the cast in bawdy costumes entering the main stage as the multiple manifestations of Rumour.
The two cinemas differed in their provision of an interval. The Showcase Bluewater provided a break during both screenings, and even an ice-cream seller at the first screening.
Adopting a less customer-friendly approach, the Greenwich Picturehouse continued right the way through both parts with no interval. Three hours without a break was a bit too much. But on the other hand, the Greenwich Picturehouse did provide programme sheets for both screenings, which was a plus point.
The Globe has done theatre lovers everywhere a great favour. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the 2010 Henry IVs constituted a landmark in the performance history of the plays. The fact that they have been captured and preserved digitally will enable them to be enjoyed down the years, so that future generations can see what all the fuss was about.
The onus is now on the Globe to maintain this high standard. Fortunately, they seem to be on a winning streak, with many of their recorded plays (e.g. As You Like It, the Henry IVs and this year’s Much Ado with Eve Best) enjoying both critical acclaim and large audiences.
All that remains now is for the Henry IV productions to be released on disc. It will be interesting to test whether home viewing of a high-definition Blu-ray on a 46” flat panel provides a more detailed and more immersive experience than these cinema screenings.
Valuable lessons have been learnt from the first ever staging of the Henry IV plays at the reconstructed Globe theatre on London’s Southbank. The productions have told us something about the nature of the plays and about the nature of the Globe theatre space itself. Bringing these two elements together has produced some interesting emergent effects in performance.
It has already been noted how the Globe creates a unique bond between audience and cast. By standing fully lit at the foot of the stage, the groundlings are effectively in a conversation with the actors. The cast act and the people standing in the yard react knowing that their reactions are equally well-lit and visible and can be seen by the performers. The bond originates in the knowledge each group has that it is visible to the other.
A standing audience can also be much freer in its physical reactions than a seated audience. The Globe’s custom of having the cast make entrances and exits through the yard also removes the specific boundary between actors and audience.
This connection magnifies the comedy element in any production. When an audience is engaged by tragedy it can be rapt and silent. Success is measured by the pin-drop silence that descends over an audience. However, pin-drop silence in reaction to comedy would be a sign of failure: success in comedy is gauged by the noise and movement of the spectators.
This means that when comedy is played at the Globe the feedback from the audience is more immediate and intense than at traditional venues. The audience feedback then shapes the performance of the cast in a beneficial cycle of rewards.
The Globe staging of these two plays, which contain some of the funniest moments in Shakespeare, took full advantage of these phenomena. The overall effect led many people to conclude that these were finest performances of the Henry IV plays they had ever seen.
Compared with previous productions it was like seeing the plays for the first time. The vitality that audiences and readers have always detected within the story of Hal and Falstaff was here given complete expression. This was empirical confirmation that the plays had been designed to work particularly well at an outdoor theatre like the Globe: it was only here that the full force of their magic could be set free.
But this obviously required a cast that could make use of the opportunities provided by the space and direction that could use it intelligently. Fortunately we got both.
The simplest way of demonstrating the success of the formula is to look at the key character of Falstaff, played by Roger Allam. The casting was a genius move. Instead of finding someone fat and old and crossing fingers hoping he could be funny, they found an actor who excels at comedy and then fitted him out to look the part.
Performed at the Globe by Roger Allam, Falstaff was even more self-dramatising than usual.
It could be said that Allam’s Falstaff was a performance akin to a play within a play and that his primary audience were the other characters in the production. This performance existed independently of any paying audience coming to watch it and would have happily continued had the doors to the Globe remained closed.
We, the paying audience, were let in on this performance almost as an afterthought, as if the boastful attention-seeking of the character had suddenly required a wider public.
An awareness of this seemed to inform some of the directorial decisions in the production so that references to performance were incorporated into it. This went beyond the play-acting included in the text such as the Eastcheap scene in which Hal and Jack take turns to be King Henry.
In Part One 3.3 we saw Falstaff and Hal acting like rock musicians with Sir Jack strumming a lute behind his neck Hendrix-style and Hal giving high-tens to the groundlings and pretending to crowd surf.
Falstaff’s miraculous recovery from injury in 5.4 was given a theatrical flavour. When felled by a sword he clasped at his neck as blood appeared to pour from a wound. It looked as if his jugular had been cut and his fate was sealed. On rising from the ground and explaining the ‘counterfeit’, Falstaff showed the pot of fake blood that he had used to create the pretence of death.
This overt use of stage blood to produce a theatrical effect within the world of the play, consciously displayed the kind of self-dramatisation that Falstaff deployed in more subtle ways elsewhere.
Anyone seeing the two parts of the Henry IV back to back would have been able to view Falstaff enjoying his celebrity status in two connected moments.
After the end of Part One, Falstaff re-entered just before the jig and was applauded by the audience. He gestured with his hand to control the audience’s reaction like a conductor guiding an orchestra: the hand up to increase applause and down to quieten it. Although once the play has finished we tend to see the actors rather than the characters, in this instance it was definitely Falstaff at the centre of our attention.
This applause volume control then reappeared on Falstaff’s first appearance in Part Two. The scene was rewritten slightly so that he entered to general acclaim as the victor of the Battle of Shrewsbury. He soaked up applause from those on stage and, after gesturing upwards with his outstretched palm, also from the paying audience.
We were not necessarily applauding the actor for his performance but rather entering into a contract with the character of Falstaff to recognise his special status within the production. His character was almost beyond theatre.
To paraphrase the text, when we applauded ‘plump Jack’ we were applauding something good about the world.