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.
The Tempest, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford, 19 July 2012
This production was part of the RSC Shipwreck Trilogy, comprising The Tempest, The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night.
Was there any justification for bracketing these three together as a trilogy or was this just clever marketing?
The programme was intriguing. It contained a short piece by James Shapiro and David Farr pointing out the common themes of separation and reunion across the plays. This was followed by a big article by the designer explaining how he had set about providing the productions with a unified look.
The set was composed of floorboards dotted with rocks that swept up at the back into a profile like a wave. Upstage left was dominated by a large box that lighting could render transparent when required. Upstage right stood the ruins of a statue of Setebos.
In the far distance behind the wave of floorboards was some ornate Victorian ironwork, apparently a tribute to the Roundhouse where these plays had been performed during their London run.
High above, a large metal monorail ran from the behind the main stage across the auditorium to the upper gallery. Only one walkway (stage left) led off from the stage.
Miranda (Emily Taaffe), looking pretty in a vest top, walked briskly to a small desk and sat to study a book, while the storm scene took place inside the transparent box (1.1). While generally audible, the voices of those onboard ship also appeared to be coming from the portable radio on Miranda’s desk. Gonzalo (Nicholas Day) came through particularly clearly and was given prominence.
After the storm abated and the box became opaque, Miranda asked her opening question to an unseen Prospero (1.2). Jonathan Slinger then appeared inside the box, staring out. He opened the door and lumbered forward without looking at his daughter. Everything about his silent entrance spoke of someone angry, possessed and on a mission. His suit jacket looked bleached or washed out on one lapel, a detail repeated in both Ariel and Caliban’s clothing.
He comforted Miranda, kissing the top of her head when stating that not “an hair” of anyone onboard had been jeopardised. He pointed at the radio as the source of the voices that she had heard.
As Prospero began to retell the story of their journey to the island, he paused for a long time after mentioning “thy mother”, as if still affected by her presumed loss, a detail emphasised by the fact that he was still wearing his wedding ring.
This was perhaps the first sign that the shipwreck trilogy theme of separation was being underscored in the production.
Prospero was overcome with an angular anger when recounting his brother Antonio’s role in the story, indicating that this was the aspect of the affair that animated him the most.
With Miranda put to sleep, Ariel (Sandy Grierson) appeared inside the box and his slightly stilted movements on entering made him seem like an android. Subsequent action in the performance hinted that this style of movement was symptomatic of Prospero’s magical hold over him.
When the spirit questioned the imposition of more work, Prospero’s “How now? Moody?” saw him spit with anger. He retrieved his staff, which in keeping with the undercurrent of violence in his character, looked more like a cudgel than a magic instrument.
Indeed, when he made Ariel sit at Miranda’s desk to receive his monthly reminder of why he should be grateful to Prospero, he slammed the cudgel/staff down on the desk when accusing Ariel with the harsh words “Thou liest, malignant thing”.
Ariel was dispatched and Miranda awakened, after which Prospero banged his staff on the ground to summon Caliban. Ariel reappeared briefly with his helpers inside the box.
Caliban (Amer Hlehel) wore a suit just like Prospero’s, but was even more scruffy and dishevelled. He had a vague Latin American accent that underscored his otherness among the English speakers. But importantly there was nothing animalistic in his appearance or demeanour.
The programme informed us that the ruins stage right were of a statue of Sycorax’s god Setebos, so that when Caliban showed fear of Prospero’s power, saying he could control that god, he was faced with a powerful reminder of how Setebos has been overthrown.
Ferdinand (Solomon Israel) appeared out of the box, which now seemed to be functioning as a portal, led by Ariel’s magical song. His tears for his lost father were immediately reminiscent of Prospero’s emotion when thinking of his wife.
The young man came across as simple and kind, which contrasted with Prospero’s feigned suspicion of him. Ferdinand tried to defend himself with his sword, but Ariel sat invisible just behind him on a rock, and simply grasped the drawn blade, locking it into place so that Ferdinand could not make it budge.
Prospero used bitter terms against Miranda when she tried to defend Ferdinand from her father’s impositions. It was difficult to bear in mind that Prospero was at this point merely putting the young man to the test.
Alonso (Kevin McMonagle) and party emerged from the box at the start of act two. Sebastian was played by actress Kirsty Bushell. Despite this, the character was not regendered as a female, but kept the original name and was constantly addressed as “Sir”.
As Antonio (Jonathan McGuinness) and Sebastian joked, Ariel charmed the others to sleep with a bowed xylophone. Their plot of murder agreed on, they drew their knives but were frozen in position by Ariel.
Caliban carried a bundle of floorboards and dumped them with loud crash on the ground before crouching under his coat, which bore markings that made it look like a fabric remnant from a life raft (2.2).
Trinculo (Felix Hayes) wore his boots around his neck and carried a meat cleaver. He squealed on seeing Caliban, but nevertheless crawled underneath his coat to take shelter. The two positioned themselves so that their legs bent back at the knee to point in the air, creating the distinct impression of a four-legged creature.
An attempt at topicality was made when Stephano’s description of the “monster” became “a present for any banker” rather than the text’s “emperor”. But this sounded clumsy and laboured in its right-on-ness.
Rather more successful was the visual joke that Stephano’s “comfort” came in a bottle remarkably similar, but not identical, to a bottle of Southern Comfort.
Stephano (Bruce Mackinnon) pulled on a set of legs and with extreme effort extracted Trinculo, who went on to explain how he had survived by swimming like a duck, his hands mimicking a duck paddle motion.
Ferdinand laboured under the weight of the planks he was forced to move (3.1). And just as with Caliban, these were real, solid bundles of wood that were genuinely difficult to carry.
His encounter with Miranda was observed by some of Ariel’s helpers who stretched a rope, presumably invisible to the pair, that separated them as they spoke. The interval came after this scene.
The second half started with the island’s rogues reeling around, Stephano having retrieved a number of optic bottles still attached a section of bar (3.2). Caliban demonstrated his new-found taste for drink by downing one of the bottles in one. Ariel’s ventriloquism obliged poor Trinculo to wander in search of the mystery voice that was causing him to be beaten.
But the real comedy of this scene resulted from Caliban’s description of Miranda, which caused Stephano to pause when saying “Is it so…. brave a lass?” his animation during this silence expressing his pent up excitement.
Caliban’s speech about his isle of wonder was spoken without any air of poetic mystique and sounded more like a statement of bare fact.
Prospero surveyed the noblemen from the roof of the box as they paused on their journey (3.3). The banquet was brought in on a neon-lit table. A bright flash saw the lavish display of food disappear, with a brief glimpse of the table top revolving, followed by Ariel descending on a wire as the menacing harpy.
The nobles drew their swords and daggers, but Ariel was out of their reach. Weighted down by Ariel’s spell, the nobles admitted defeat, all of which gave Prospero an air of triumph when describing them as being in his power.
Prospero undid Ferdinand’s foot shackles and released him, but still acted the jealous father (4.1). He sent Ariel off to bring the nobles to him. As the spirit moved towards the box, he paused and, as if having summoned sufficient courage to put the question, asked “Do you love me, master? No?” which looked all the more touching for the hesitancy of its delivery.
Preparing Ferdinand and Miranda to watch the spectacle, he separated them saying “Be more abstemious”.
The masque began with Iris descending onto the roof of the box. She called on Ceres, who popped out of the ground. Juno appeared from upstage. As is often the case, the dance of the reapers was not included.
The three figures of Iris (Amie Burns Walker), Ceres (Sarah Belcher) and Juno (Cecilia Noble) were accompanied by spirits who stood close to them and appeared to manipulate their movements. This was reminiscent of Ariel’s initial stilted gait, and the backwards reference implied that he too was being controlled at that point.
Prospero’s revels speech was pronounced by Slinger to such moving effect that it served as a reminder that this young Prospero would next year be playing an old Hamlet.
When Caliban and his roguish companions approached Prospero’s cell, spirits appeared posing as models for the fine clothes intended to distract them from their murderous purpose.
Trinculo and Stephano eagerly grabbed at the garments. A wig taken from one model showed her to have knotted hair underneath. Ariel and his helpers in dog masks chased them away with savage barking.
At the start of act five, warm sunshine shone through an aperture in the back of the set, indicating that 6pm, the time for the completion of Prospero’s plan, was drawing close.
Prospero had now turned gentle, so that his speech abjuring his rough magic was calmly nostalgic about his past glories rather than bitter about the impending loss of the power that had created them.
The nobles appeared inside the box and emerged. While they stood around, Prospero went to change into a good suit. When he reappeared in clean clothes, Ariel did up his master’s jacket buttons in a touching display of affection.
Prospero greeted Gonzalo warmly. He then slapped Antonio on the face in reprimand for his wickedness but almost immediately hugged him uttering words of forgiveness. This indicated that he was still some way towards a complete cure for his rage.
Not surprisingly, given its function as an all-purpose portal for character entrances, the box was used for the discovery of Ferdinand and Miranda playing chess. It was lit from the inside to reveal the pair, causing Alonso great delight.
Ferdinand peered through the transparent side of the box at his father before joining him.
Gonzalo’s list of the various people who had found something or someone they had lost, ended with the comment “and all of us ourselves when no man was his own”, which touched on the overarching theme of the shipwreck trilogy relating to precisely this sort of separation and reunion.
When the rogues rushed in they did not see the nobles at first. It was only until the clothes piled over their faces were removed that they realised their predicament.
Perhaps commenting on his own remnants of ill will, he had after all just slapped his own brother, Prospero did not look at Caliban when conceding ownership of “this thing of darkness”. He gazed instead at the ground, thinking of we know not what.
Caliban promised “be wise hereafter and seek for grace”. As he exited he passed close to Miranda and looked her up and down, reminding us of his attack on her in the backstory.
Mirroring his spirit companion’s earlier gesture, Prospero unbuttoned Ariel’s jacket to symbolise his release. Ariel fully removed the garment, as did the other Ariels that had shadowed him as assistants.
The house lights came up for the epilogue, which Prospero ended with his head bowed waiting for our applause.
Jonathan Slinger’s Prospero was no kindly ageing magus but a spitting ball of fury. His final mercy towards his brother was not an instantaneous transformation but, judging by the residual aggression towards Antonio, more of a work in progress.
It was as if playing Macbeth for so long the previous year had left an indelible mark.
The Tempest, The Globe, 8 May 2012
The brightly painted backdrops showing a storm-tossed ship and the equally colourful suitcases arranged on the stage, together with coils of rope, created a fairy-tale atmosphere even before this Bangla production from Dhaka Theatre had begun.
It provided an evening of charming family entertainment, but also managed to make some serious points despite being severely condensed.
The cast and musicians each took a suitcase and placed it in front of them when they sat in a line at the back of the stage. The musicians were key to this production as virtually all the action took place to a subtle musical accompaniment of drums and percussion.
Prospero (Rubol Noor Lodi) blew on a conch to start the storm, as actors with small ship models on their sleeves danced around Ariel, unusually portrayed by a middle-aged woman (Shimul Yousuf) in a long blue veil. The dance became more frantic as the storm did its work.
Prospero walked with a stately, prancing gait as he reassured Miranda (Esha Yousuf) that no one had been harmed in the storm. She held her fingers elegantly as they circled gracefully around each other.
Ariel was pinched with cramps which Prospero delivered by stamping on the ground.
Caliban (Chandan Chowdhury) was hunched and clenched his fingers like claws. The unpleasant reference to Caliban’s attempted rape of Miranda was excised from the story so that Miranda was absent when Prospero spoke to him. Caliban was more of a naughty trickster with a cheeky smirk than a monster.
Ferdinand (Khairul Islam Pakhi) looked like a fairy-tale prince in his white uniform; even his sword had a fantasy touch. It was a soft stick with the figure of a bird as a hilt that looked more like a toy than a weapon. Prospero simply ducked out of the way when Ferdinand tried to strike at him.
The Duke (Shahiduzzaman Selim) and his party searched for Ferdinand. Ariel walked between them and put a young-looking Gonzalo (Rubayet Chowdhury Ahmed) and Alonso to sleep. Antonio’s (Shajjad Rajib) manic expression when suggesting to Sebastian (Rafiqul Islam) that he mimic him and allow his own brother to be killed got laughs from the audience, as did the plotters’ sheepish excuses when Alonso and Gonzalo awoke to see them with their swords drawn. Like Ferdinand, they also had soft sticks with playful designs as hilts.
An interesting female Trinculo (Samiun Jahan Dola) was played as a clown with a swaggering walk and exaggerated gestures. During a storm, she hid under Caliban and the drunk Stephano (Kamal Bayzid) touched the feet of the four-footed monster he thought he had found.
The reunion between Stephano and Trinculo was a very jolly one, with Stephano holding his companion in a neck grip from which Trinculo struggled comically to escape. Caliban was so taken with the drink that he sneaked up on Stephano to get at the bottle he was holding behind his back.
Some acrobatic drummers who jumped and span round led us into the interval. They reappeared against for the second half, which began with the very cute romance of Miranda and Ferdinand.
Ariel’s ventriloquism trick on Trinculo was played as slapstick. The banquet offered to the nobles was represented by large fake leaves with food painted onto them. Interestingly, Ariel did not appear as a harpy when confronting the nobles with their crimes.
Having tested the young suitor’s mettle, Prospero consented to the marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda. The ceremony was immediately performed complete with floral garlands at the point where the masque occurs in the original.
The conspirators found two boxes containing fine clothes, and the female Trinculo was particularly taken with some gold cloth. They were chased them from cell by spirits.
Prospero renounced his magic, casting it aside with a sweeping gesture, after which the nobles were brought into his cell.
They immediately recognised Prospero and leant back in surprise. The brothers were reconciled; Alonso was delighted to discover that Ferdinand was still alive and married to Miranda. The servants were shamed and Ariel was set free. Everyone danced to create fair winds for the journey home.
So far this had been an interesting, colourful and folkloric adaptation of the play. But the ending saved it from being a saccharine concoction of pure twee.
Prospero offered the conch to Caliban. As soon as Caliban’s hand grasped it, the fingers on his other hand unclenched from their claw-like grip. The other hand followed suit. He stood upright and began to walk with the same dignified prancing step used by Prospero. He got to blow the conch as a symbolic assumption of power.
The final image in the production was Caliban garlanded and enthroned as ruler of island.
This was a striking way in which to end the play. Prospero did not address the audience to meditate on his story; the focus was clearly on the restoration of the island to its rightful owner.
The performance was rounded off with another dance, after which the cast went wild, shaking hands and high-fiving the audience as someone ran round the stage with a Bangladeshi flag.
The Tempest, Theatre Royal Haymarket, 8 October 2011
The ruined brick set for this production presaged industrial sparseness rather than any kind of island. Prospero’s cell was built into the stage right box and its overflowing library was warmly lit, making it look inviting in contrast to the grey bleakness of the rest of the stage. A door was set into the bare brick back wall.
Ralph Fiennes’ Prospero wandered on from stage right while the house lights were still up and the audience chattering. A hush descended and the lights eventually dimmed. His staff and book were in position downstage. He knelt to consult the book, muttering the beginnings of a spell under his breath. Picking up his staff, Prospero stood and began a series of stylised movements, gradually retreating upstage, whereupon the tempest began.
The mariners descended on ropes from the flies and a large bridge structure was flown in carrying the Shipmaster. The motion of the ship was conveyed by the crew swaying as they held on to the ropes.
Projections were used to indicate the storm and rain, turning the bland set into something more colourful. Mariners carried a mast, perhaps trying to hold onto it.
The sound of the dialogue here was quite audible and not lost under the sound effects. Ariel moved about spouting flames from his hand.
Gonzalo’s speech was picked out in spotlight as he commented on his desire to “die a dry death”. This special treatment earmarked him for our attention later on.
The drowning of the crew and sinking of the ship were indicated by the bridge rising up out of view, while some of the mariners cascaded down ropes as if descending beneath it.
Miranda looked concerned at the plight of the ship she had seen (1.2). Prospero was frustrated at this concern. Fiennes’ Prospero was a cynical middle-aged man constantly assailed by impetuous youth. His personal mission was to tame this wild youthful enthusiasm. The dynamic of the production was idealism versus cynicism/realism.
He sat down on the ground with Miranda to explain how they had come to be on the island. But when he got onto the subject of his brother’s perfidy, he shot to his feet and told the story animatedly. The emotions aroused in him would not let him rest calmly on the ground. This indicated his continued inner torment at the injustice he had suffered.
The audience tittered at Prospero’s remark about Miranda’s mother assuring him of his paternity. For some reason they also laughed at the mention of rats leaving the boat, which was odd.
Prospero acted out the way his brother clung to him like ivy, and also mimed the screen that had stood between his brother and the dukedom. In general, this speech was spoken with such skill and mastery of the language that it was almost worth the ticket price in itself.
He put Miranda to sleep and covered her with his cloak. He stood in the middle of the stage and dramatically summoned Ariel (pronounced: air-re-al) who floated across the stage on a highly visible harness. Ariel’s reference to flying was said while flying. This and other flying effects were deliberately primitive, perhaps to suggest original practice. There was a hint that this was meant to resemble a Blackfriars production.
Prospero set up an hourglass downstage when referencing the time, and the glass remained in position until the beginning of second half.
Ariel’s general demeanour was that of a young boy. His petulance at not being released immediately provoked more ire from Prospero in another example of his containment and direction of youthful energy. Ariel appeared in a grey wrap with rudimentary wings on his shoulders. His face was blue with a darker blue streak at top.
When at work for his master, Ariel was often portrayed by three actors, reflecting his own description of himself in 1.2: “Sometime I’d divide and burn in many places”.
Prospero reminded Ariel about his past. The recollection prompted the spirit to act out his former imprisonment shut inside the pine tree. Ariel then flitted off using the balletic movements that characterised his motion.
After waking Miranda and a brief conversation with Ariel, Prospero took his daughter to encounter Caliban, who rose out of the trap. This Caliban, played by Giles Terera, was sharp, precise, angry, but not primitive.
Caliban has some of the best lines in the play, which hints that he has a certain nobility of thought. Here it was made explicit that his mind was commensurately keen. He spoke with a slight stutter and hesitance, which looked like learnt behaviour masking his true potential. This made Caliban part of the axis of youth against which Prospero was engaged.
When the monster said that the island was his by Sycorax his mother, you almost expected him to produce a deed of title in evidence.
Prospero frequently fingered an ornament associated with Caliban, whose significance was not revealed until the end.
Miranda showed Caliban the book that she had used to teach him language, which he summarily ripped up.
A tearful Ferdinand was escorted onstage by a group of islanders who were dressed in primitive costumes consisting of yellowish body wraps and yellow manes of hair. This was accompanied by singing and dancing. They surrounded him as if representing the enchantment to which he was subject.
Prospero brought in Miranda from upstage left to see the young man. She exuded a flush of inexperienced enthusiasm. After Prospero challenged Ferdinand, Miranda’s aside about her father’s ungentleness was directed at the audience. There was a flicker of comedy in Prospero’s repeated attempts to catch Ferdinand’s attention by asking him for “one word”, highlighting how distracted the prince was by Miranda’s charms.
Ferdinand drew his sword but he could not move it. Prospero hit the sword with a small stick found on the ground, causing the sword to drop. Ferdinand became yet another source of youthful exuberance and energy to be contained.
The nobles were dressed in Jacobean costume, which tied in with the period flying effects (2.1). Sebastian and Antonio sat themselves stage right to bicker about Gonzalo, who stood some distance from them. The timing of Sebastian’s camp interventions was excellent. Alonso crouched disconsolately stage left.
Antonio and Sebastian’s bet on who would speak next, saw Gonzalo almost begin to speak, but in the end the first words came from Adrian. Alonso finally snapped at all the yapping. Sebastian rubbed the sore by reminding Alonso that this was all his fault.
Gonzalo’s speech about his ideal commonwealth was held over from this scene until the nobles were next together. This speeded up the scene so that Ariel’s enchantment of the nobles came next.
He walked invisible among them and charmed them to sleep. Alonso noticed the others falling asleep in a pile stage right and wished his eyes would close in the same way. Ariel then charmed Alonso, provoking his remark: “I find they are inclined to do so.”
Antonio set about persuading Sebastian to consent to the murder of his own brother. When Sebastian asked him about his conscience, there was a long pause before Antonio replied “Ay, sir, where lies that?”
Prospero had appeared briefly at the back of the stage during this time, providing an explanation for Ariel’s subsequent comment that his master had foreseen this plot. Ariel charmed the nobles awake so that they saw Antonio and Sebastian with their swords drawn against them. Sebastian managed to bluster his way out of the situation and his deceitful account of his actions was believed.
Caliban dumped his heavy load of wood, and hid under his coat as he heard a storm approaching (2.2).
Trinculo was performed by Nicholas Lyndhurst, the production’s resident prole-bait, who spoke throughout in a stupid high-pitched rustic voice. He knelt on all fours under the coat facing in the opposite direction so that the coat jutted up like a rock. Stephano, Clive Wood, entered roaring drunk, singing and dancing. He sat on the rock, but soon spat out drink when the ‘rock’ moved as Caliban spoke.
The four-legged monster shuffled around on its knees and ended up facing lengthways downstage as Stephano gave it wine. Trinculo’s head appeared facing the stage to say that he recognised Stephano’s voice. Stephano went to leave, but Trinculo called him back. Stephano pulled on Trinculo’s legs and retrieved him from under the coat.
Clive Wood was superb at acting drunk and not tolerating sudden movement. Caliban became infatuated with the source of the liquor, which allowed Stephano to make fun of him. Stephano touched the side of his nose to signal his mischievousness. Caliban enthusiastically kissed Stephano’s feet.
Caliban danced in celebration of his new-found freedom while Stephano and Trinculo joined in a kind of chorus. But they also made bunny ear gestures behind Caliban’s head to mock him.
Ferdinand carried logs, with his feet bound loosely with rope (3.1). Miranda tried to help and Prospero watched them at a distance hiding by the left side of the stage.
When Miranda told Ferdinand her name, he slowly spelled out the syllables to arrive at the connection with the word ‘admired’. Prospero commented in aside, and although his words were positive, he seemed distressed. He intended to marry off his daughter, but at the same time his cynicism had infected his view of all humanity to the extent that he could only see obstacles and setbacks. His phrase “So glad of this as they I cannot be…” was keenly accentuated. The interval came here after what seemed like a long 90 minutes.
At the start of the second half (3.2), Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo were very drunk indeed. Caliban carried in a butt of wine. The audience laughed at Trinculo’s joke about the state tottering. Stephano got his words mixed up so that he said “songue in tack” instead of “tongue in sack”. He also tried to speak to Trinculo but looked in the wrong place and had to be directed back, presumably due to drink-induced blurred vision.
Ariel threw his voice to create the impression that Trinculo was insulting Stephano. After each “thou liest” Trinculo looked around to see where the voice was coming from. Stephano eventually punched and head-butted Trinculo.
Caliban tried to convince Stephano to kill and supplant Prospero. The turning point came when he mentioned Miranda. As he asked “Is it so brave a lass?”, Stephano traced an hourglass figure with his hands. Caliban corrected him with a gesture of his own, making Miranda’s hips seem wider.
They sang their song but failed to get the tune correct. Ariel played the right tune offstage, leading Caliban into his famous speech about the isle being full of noises.
When we next saw them, the nobles were tired and Antonio and Sebastian were still trying to execute their murderous plot (3.3). Gonzalo’s speech about his ideal commonwealth was transferred here to give more of an introduction to the banquet sequence.
The bridge descended again with Prospero lying on its floor looking down at the nobles below, as indicated in the stage directions which have him “on the top”. He moved his hands as if casting a spell to usher in the banquet.
The dancing villagers brought in a banquet table with food as music played. The nobles gather round and Alonso tasted some to make sure it is real, saying “I will stand to and feed”.
Ariel’s harpy descended from above. Surprisingly for a production laden with convincing effects, the harpy was not really menacing and its plain white wings made it look like a giant seagull. Ariel was still substantially a sprite and looked more like a birdman than a harbinger of doom.
The food instantly disappeared from the table and later the villagers pulled away the table cloth to reveal that the table has vanished from beneath.
The three men of sin stood transfixed for a while, separate from the others, after the harpy vision had disappeared. They exited in confusion.
Prospero performed a handfasting ceremony for Miranda and Ferdinand (4.1). His stern warning to the young man about breaking Miranda’s virgin-knot goaded Ferdinand into an obviously insincere suitor’s speech about his honourable intentions. Prospero did not look impressed. He nodded cynically, saying “Fairly spoke”.
Although comical, the serious point underlying this was Prospero’s disenchantment with youth, and Ferdinand in particular. Despite effectively hand-picking Ferdinand for Miranda’s attentions, Prospero could not disguise his lack of respect. Marrying the couple almost seemed like a tedious job of work rather than a labour of love by a devoted father.
Prospero sent the couple to sit upstage and summoned Ariel. He turned the hourglass over to start it again. He had to return upstage and pull Ferdinand off Miranda when he noticed them canoodling. His words “Look thou be true. Do not give dalliance too much the rein” fitted nicely with their sudden enthusiasm for each other. Ferdinand responded to this with yet more vows of chastity, which caused Prospero to roll his eyes. This was very funny to watch.
He sat the couple on the ground downstage and produced the pageant. A long strip of sheet unfurled from the flies like a walkway and Iris hovered in the air stage right, appearing to walk down it. She announced the entry of Ceres who flew in stage left suspended in a loop of cloth. Juno descended on the bridge only when mentioned. Her hair and face were gold, in a style rather reminiscent of Queen Elizabeth, and the bridge was decorated with large golden fans. The islanders below presented the dance of the reapers. This was a very stunning and effective staging that seemed like a recreation of a Jacobean court masque.
Remembering Caliban’s plot, Prospero called a halt to proceedings. The lighting changed abruptly to illuminate the ground and put the masque into darkness. The extensive and visually stunning revels really were now ended.
Unfortunately, when Ralph Fiennes said “I will plague them all, even to roaring” I got a flashback of Helen Mirren saying the same line in the Julie Taymor film version.
Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo approached Prospero’s cell. Caliban led the way and appeared to be taking the mission very seriously. He was therefore very annoyed when a clothes line suddenly shot across the stage, causing the others to turn back and put on the clothes.
Prospero, Ariel and the other spirits appeared and barked at the conspirators like dogs, chasing them away. Prospero’s concluding triumph about his enemies lying at his mercy was quite scary.
At the beginning of act five, Prospero entered just as he had done at the start of the play in his magic robes, carrying his staff and book. Ariel urged compassion, and Prospero appeared to be affected by this advice. He would practice virtue rather than vengeance.
Prospero used his staff to cast a spell creating a dimly lit circle around him. His speech about abjuring his rough magic was excellently spoken and unleashed the power of the verse. When Ralph Fiennes said that he had made promontories shake, you were inclined to believe him.
Still under Prospero’s enchantment, the nobles slowly made way onstage. Their arms were outstretched and the men tentatively groped the air as if unable to see. This looked a little forced. Prospero made them circle round and talked about them in turn.
His anger at Antonio caused him to make striking motions towards his brother with his staff, a first indication that his vow of clemency was proving difficult for him to keep. He had accepted at an intellectual level that mercy was the best course, but his residual anger towards Antonio still rebelled against it.
He asked Ariel to fetch his formal ducal uniform and he changed into it onstage with Ariel providing cover. As he put on the sword of office he looked at Antonio and partly drew it from its scabbard. This was another indication of the resentment he still felt towards his brother.
When the nobles had emerged from their trance, Prospero touched Alonso to assure him that he was real. Alonso remained doubtful until he felt Prospero’s pulse. He bowed to Prospero as he resigned his dukedom. When Prospero spoke to Antonio he paused slightly before pronouncing his pardon, but it seemed that the struggle to forgive had finally been won.
Ferdinand and Miranda appeared lit behind a black sheet playing on a white chessboard. Prospero’s reaction to Miranda’s brave new world speech was yet another indication of his weary cynicism in the face of youthful idealism and enthusiasm, a theme running through Fiennes’ performance. This characterisation raised the question of whether this Prospero had any real hopes for the future happiness of the couple.
Gonzalo’s summing up was quite touching. He smoothed over the discord by attributing the events to behaviour enacted “when no man was his own”.
With the plotters also fetched in, Prospero stood over Caliban to acknowledge him his. Interestingly, Prospero pardoned Caliban and then took from Miranda the ornament that he had held nervously in his hand earlier in the play, and put it around Caliban’s neck. This ritual seemed to reinstate Caliban as ruler of the island. The pardoned plotters went into Prospero’s cell to trim it handsomely. Prospero liberated Ariel, who flew off after touching Prospero’s hand with a mixture of gratitude and affection.
Prospero opened up a trap door and knelt by it with his staff and book. He broke the staff behind his neck and cast it and the book into the hatch. A sound effect indicated the long drop as the instruments of his power plummeted into the depths of the earth.
This gave extra resonance to his concluding speech about his powers being overthrown. Fiennes requested that the audience set him free and I was among the first to clap at the end.
This production was dominated and defined by Ralph Fiennes’ performance as Prospero. I had baulked at the £93 price of the premium seats, settling instead for the standard £63 stalls. But after seeing the production I had to concede that the higher price could almost be justified by the overall quality of the work.
Prospero’s disdainful cynicism, particularly of youth, added an extra dimension to the standard story of revenge and forgiveness. Looked at from this perspective, it is interesting to note how the play’s one truly aged character, Gonzalo, is portrayed in a uniformly positive light as if to underline the old-is-better dynamic.
The Tempest, St Giles Cripplegate London, 1 October 2011
Having toured Israel and Palestine, Jericho House brought their site-responsive Tempest to the church by the Barbican Centre. The transept crossing provided a square performance area with seating on three sides, mostly down the nave. The production run time was 1h45m with no interval.
The set was designed for evening performance. Viewing a Saturday matinee meant that its array of lamp fittings, reminiscent of a large store’s lighting department, did not get much chance to shine.
There was a fake stone plinth stage left, various blocks to the rear, and most impressively what looked like a huge bell lying on its side that represented Caliban’s lair. A scaffold tower was built around one of the columns.
The performance began with a dumb show that represented Claribel’s wedding in Tunis, from which the ship passengers were returning when the tempest broke. The storm was heralded by Ariel removing a tray of food from a table upstage. She moved among the seafarers making weaving gestures with her hands, which became her signature motion.
The actors lurched from side to side, convincingly representing the tossing of the ship. But at this matinee performance with the sun streaking through the church windows, there was no darkness to be illuminated by the hand-held lamps they carried.
Miranda looked down the aisle as if viewing the storm (1.2). Prospero responded to her with the air of headmaster fielding difficult questions from a pupil. This was a surprisingly effective characterisation, because Prospero is after all a bookish character who has failed to spot his sibling plotting against him. It seemed perfectly valid that Prospero was often on the verge of snapping his fingers and telling Ariel not to run in the corridor.
His cloak was hung up on a peg, but he still carried his big, white magic stick. His mention of “Antonia” his sister signalled the gender swap for the character of Antonio. She appeared silently at this point so that we could get a handle on the dramatis personae. The King of Naples similarly popped up when mentioned.
Prospero spoke of the help he had received when expelled from Milan, but Gonzalo was not named specifically as his character was cut throughout the production.
Miranda came across as keen and intelligent rather than feral. When her father put her to sleep, she lay down on the plinth. Ariel, with her wild hair, bare feet and lithe movements was much more the child of nature.
The ship’s passengers that Ariel had spread around the island could be seen sat slumped just beyond the performance area.
Ariel’s complaint at having more work to do provoked a headmasterly response from Prospero. His chiding of his ethereal servant verged on demanding she copy out lines: “I must not forget what I have been.”
Prospero and Miranda visited Caliban who sat inside the giant bell. The character was no monster and, apart from a slight slouch, appeared quite human in form. The only hint of his servile status being his bound wounds, presumably the result of hard labour.
However, he was slow of speech to indicate his lack of intelligence and closeness to the animal kingdom. After his scolding, Caliban moved to the back of the performance space and carried boxes in slow motion while the play continued in front of him.
Ariel sang as she led Ferdinand onstage. The young man wore a white suit and tears streamed down his face. Miranda, who was now standing in the scaffold tower, was so impressed with him that she slumped into a crouch.
Ferdinand’s tears were very moving. It seems natural that someone in his condition would be distraught. But Ferdinand’s collapse is not often made this visible, nor are the emotions made so obvious. The text says that he is “stained with grief” and that his eyes are “never since at ebb” implying precisely this degree of sorrow.
When Prospero challenged Ferdinand, the young man drew a dagger, but Ariel froze him. Once disarmed, Ferdinand went to the back of the space to move boxes along with Caliban.
With only Alonso, Sebastian and Antonia present, scene 2.1 was drastically cut, with Gonzalo’s part missing in particular. There was no mocking of Gonzalo by Sebastian and Adrian and many of Gonzalo’s lines were given to Antonia. This worked well when discussing the general characteristics of the island, but sounded odd when perfidious plotting Antonia recounted Gonzalo’s description of his ideal commonwealth. These were clearly the words and sentiments of a virtuous character and not a fratricidal Machiavel. The commonwealth speech also proceeded without cutting interruptions from Antonia.
Alonso was tall and regal in a white coat. He was charmed asleep by Ariel and lay on the plinth. Ariel then sat on the ground to watch Antonia and Sebastian plotting, making her characteristic hand weaving motion. They jointly held a dagger over Alonso’s prone body on the plinth, as if about to make a sacrifice. But Ariel frustrated their attempt on his life by waking Alonso with noise.
Caliban hid under a large dust cover on the plinth (2.2) and was soon joined by Trinculo (doubled with Sebastian). Ariel hovered in the background and lifted up the sheet, prompting Trinculo to climb underneath it and lie on top of Caliban. This was another example of Ariel’s involvement in all stages of the story, giving the character a much more active role than ascribed in the text.
Stephanie, another gender-swapped role doubled with Antonia, staggered around drunk clutching a bottle. After she discovered the strange monster and gave it a drink, Trinculo appeared from under the sheet in just his underpants. This was hilarious, but the precise reason why he had undressed was not explained.
Caliban began to worship Stephanie. His adoration and foot kissing indicated a physical attraction, which she seemed to enjoy. They ended up wrapped around each other but without engaging in overtly sexual activity.
Miranda had been watching Ferdinand at work during the previous scene and now met her beloved at the start of act three. They promised to marry each other.
Stephanie, Trinculo and Caliban reappeared drunk (3.2). Stephanie got Caliban to kneel, but found herself unsteady on her feet and decided to stand, as indicated in the text. The foot kissing continued. As Caliban tried to convince Stephanie to kill Prospero, Ariel stood on the plinth behind Trinculo and made it seem as if he were insulting Stephanie.
When Caliban told the others about Miranda, Stephanie’s lines were surprisingly altered to indicate her desire to marry her. The reference to “king and queen” was altered so that Stephanie said of Miranda that “she will be my queen”. At this point it seemed as if the production did not know what to do with the logical consequences of its gender swap.
Trinculo and Stephanie tried to sing their song into a mic with a tabor, but Ariel sang her song over the top of it. Her singing here, as elsewhere, was very beautiful. Caliban hugged Stephanie as they sat on the plinth while he explained that the isle was full of noises.
With Gonzalo’s lines cut, scene 3.3 began with Alonso stating that his son was surely drowned. The King’s sorrowful concession that his son Ferdinand had died was accompanied by Ferdinand kneeling behind him in silent prayer. The implication was that each was in mourning for the other.
Some islanders placed a banquet on the table at the rear. To fill out the scene, Miranda and Ferdinand also stood at the back. With the banquet withdrawn, Ariel burst down the aisle as a harpy. Her costume consisted of a cloth sheep head, jumping stilts providing a springy gait, and poles with sheep feet at the bottom which she used to steady herself. Her voice was amplified to give it more power.
Prospero arranged the marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda (4.1). Iris and Ceres only were in attendance. The small company did not stretch to providing a full complement of nymphs and reapers. The magic show was cut short when Prospero remembered Caliban’s plot.
The rich clothing that Ariel displayed to distract Trinculo and Stephanie were priestly vestments, more of which were found inside the plinth whose top hinged open. During this time Alonso silently wandered the stage agonising as he clutched mementos of his lost son, Ferdinand.
Ariel and Prospero chased the conspirators away by barking like dogs.
Prospero readied his revenge, but Ariel mollified him (5.1). The slow-motion entry of the drowsy nobles looked a bit clumsy. This can often look like a childish game rather than a convincing effect.
After Prospero had abjured his rough magic, Ferdinand and Miranda appeared at the rear in full view, but as yet unseen by Alonso, playing a strange chess game in which the pieces were figures inside a model of the church. This was apparently the box model for the production, creating the delicious implication that the chess game was a microcosm of the whole play.
Prospero removed his cloak and donned his formal jacket. The troubled Alonso was shown Miranda and Ferdinand at their game.
Miranda addressed the audience as if we were the inhabitants of the brave new world she had discovered. The Boatswain made a brief appearance followed by the terrible trio. Only Caliban spoke while the others cowered in their vestments gesturing at each other. This avoided dialogue between parts that were being doubled.
After arranging to recount his entire story to Alonso, Prospero set Ariel free. She donned his cloak and Prospero’s head bowed, suggesting that his powers were being transferred to her.
The epilogue provided a pleasant finale to the production.
This was a very good fringe production. It did not produce any earth-shattering innovations, but was excellent value at £21. The cuts and doublings forced by the size of the cast produced some odd results.
The airy interior of the Barbican’s local church made for a pleasing venue. It was a rewarding way to spend the afternoon, even if the production did not bring much new to the table.
The Tempest, Greenwich Picturehouse, 14 March 2011
A sandcastle is seen in close-up and is soon revealed to be held in the palm of someone’s hand. We are teased by the illusory size of the castle and then see it crumble to nothing as the onset of heavy rain causes the sandcastle to disintegrate.
Julie Taymor’s film version of The Tempest starts out quite well. This thoughtful and artistic beginning refers forward to “our revels now are ended” in which we are told about the towers, palaces and temples that dissolve “leaving not a wrack behind”.
It seems to offer the prospect of more such allusions, internal references and intelligent reflection.
But from this point on the initial promise of the film also crumbles like a sandcastle in a storm.
The hand is Miranda’s and, as we see the scenes of panic onboard the storm-tossed ship, she runs to the edge of a promontory. There she finds her mother Prospera, the exiled Duke of Milan, played by Helen Mirren.
Mirren grits her teeth and ejects a heartfelt shriek as, with her staff held above her head, she wills the ship to sink beneath the waves.
Back in her cell, Prospera provides the long, expository back story for Miranda’s and our benefit. Much of this is done in voiceover as we see the events described.
The story is tweaked to allow for Prospera’s gender and involves adding to Shakespeare’s text to include a reference to Prospera’s father and how his death led to her inheriting the dukedom.
A major flaw with the film is that this key decision, to cast Helen Mirren as a female Prospera, does not work.
It is difficult to say whether this is something inherent in a female Prospera or simply Mirren in the role. Perhaps in the capable hands of someone like Fiona Shaw, this could have been made to work.
Mirren spends a lot of time looking into the distance and speaking her lines as if reading them off a board. The disconcerting effect of this is not helped by the occasional unwarranted close-up of her eyes. The failure of the central character to hold our interest underscores the other faults in the film rather than drawing attention away from them.
Some of the failure must be the fault of the direction. At the end of the film, for example, Prospera exchanges long but strangely meaningless stares with Caliban, who grimaces and departs up a banister-less stairway and out of her cell. This is all meant to signify something, but the film does not provide much of clue as to precisely what.
This is a shame because much of the acting by the rest of the cast is quite good. Tom Conti’s Gonzalo is incredibly likeable and convincing. The combination of Russell Brand and Alfred Molina as Trinculo and Stephano works well, with Brand’s raffishness ideally suited to the role.
Ferdinand and Miranda are passable as the young couple in love. The song from Twelfth Night “O Mistress Mine” is sung by Ferdinand to his love when they pledge their devotion to each other.
Caliban awakens in a pit strewn with what look like beer cans, a hint that he has indeed been introduce to water with berries in it. His face is two-tone with one section pale white, the eye within it a distinctive blue colour, this in contrast to the black skin and brown eye of the other half.
This dual ethnicity in one body provides a hint at the universality of the character’s nature, the fact that Caliban is not in essence of any one race. The rest of his bulky frame seems encrusted with cracks as if he is made of earth.
All of this demonstrates that some careful consideration has been given to the presentation of some of the key characters.
The character of Ariel on the other hand is at the centre of the other significant flaw in the film.
He is only ever seen as a translucent graphically enhanced figure. His initial appearance is a jarring CGI overload that seems inconsistent with the rest of the film. A transparent naked figure shoots out of a pond and Prospera quizzes it about the tempest. A logical inconsistency arises here because we saw Prospera watching the progress of her spell from the cliff top. We see a retrospective of Ariel at work on the ship, which looks spectacular but it is indicative of problems to come.
The deployment of computer graphics means that the film works at two speeds. It alternates between a simple depiction of scenes as played on the stage and overblown CGI sequences complete with pumping music. These are jammed into the narrative whenever the text’s stage directions give an excuse for the big box of graphic tricks to be opened.
The contrast when normality is resumed is very noticeable. We go from visually stunning flights of fancy, such as Ariel’s harpy and the fiery hellhounds chasing Caliban’s gang, back to bog standard camera shots of people acting as if on stage. There is no smoothing of the edges or consistent use of CGI to create coherence across the film.
The pageant of Iris, Ceres and Juno is replaced by a puzzling sequence of zodiacal symbols that seemed clumsily inserted, with no indication that Ferdinand and Miranda are witnessing it.
Compared with much else of what we see, the sequence in which Caliban is found by Trinculo and Stephano is like a filmed street theatre production of the play.
Similarly the scene in which Alonso discovers Ferdinand and Miranda playing chess reveals them hidden in an alcove, which is a surprisingly theatrical choice given the possibilities offered by film.
Rather than re-imagine the play for the cinema, this film preserves the structure of a simple stage version and then tries to make it more exciting by selective, excessive use of computer graphics to create an ugly hybrid.
The play’s stage directions indicating special effects such as harpies and storms were intended to create a modicum of spectacle in an otherwise static theatrical version. The technology of the theatre both past and present creates momentary excitement that does not overwhelm the senses.
Mistaking these stage directions for cues to unleash the latest in CGI effects creates this gross misbalance in the tone of the film.
With most of the CGI centred on Ariel there are points where the rest of the film looks only half-heartedly spiced with graphics. More even application of CGI would have made for a more coherent result.
The banquet sequence has a very obvious and clunky CGI table superimposed on Hawaii’s rocky landscape. As one of the main stage effects in the play, it needed to be slightly more mysterious and ethereal.
This compares poorly with a retrospective (and unnecessary) graphic-intensive scene showing the imprisonment of Ariel in a pine tree by Sycorax.
Prospera’s magic at times looks particularly underpowered. The magic circle drawn with her staff in the final act is a simple ring of quite modest flame that is soon extinguished.
The culmination of her plan, bringing her enemies within her grasp could have benefited from something more spectacular. But what we get is a cheap magician’s trick with effects from a joke shop.
The nobles brought into this magic circle then freeze in position as they often do in stage productions. Again, it is possible to imagine much more complex graphic trickery employed here to create the feeling of magic powers at work.
Prospera finally casts her staff off a cliff into the ocean. But this looks quite tawdry as the staff bounces inelegantly off the rock face and spins downwards with little ceremony.
The film ends with images of books sinking below the waves. Mirren half-sings Prospera’s closing soliloquy, with key segments repeated to stretch it out to the length of the credits.
Despite its flaws the film does contain some enjoyable moments. I was captivated by Caliban’s speech describing the music of the isle culminating in that glorious line “that when I waked, I cried to dream again. Ariel’s ventriloquism causing problems for Trinculo was one of the few instances where the graphics were in proportion to the action.
But otherwise, pointing a camera at a play and then trying to make a movie out of it proved not to be a recipe for success. No wonder, then, that film makers have in the past simply taken the basics of the story and used all the features of cinema to go beyond a simple record of the play text. This film tries to do both and falls between those two stools.
It is easy to imagine a better version of this piece: one with more of the characteristics and tone of an art-house film, rather than an unsophisticated multiplex movie. One suspects that ambitions in the former direction were scuppered by commercial pressures pulling it in the other.
This cinematic outing of The Tempest also serves to highlight the superiority of filmed versions of stage productions such as the Hamlet and Macbeth produced by Illuminations.
By the time it reached the UK the film only had a very limited release in around a dozen cinemas. On the Monday night I saw it in Greenwich there were a total of dozen people in the audience, which made the heroic efforts of Mirren and Brand to publicise it on the chat show circuit look a little in vain.