Prospero vs the young ones

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.

Ivy

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.

Enchantment

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.

Storm

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.

Interval

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.

Handfasting

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.

Compassion

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.

Conclusions

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.

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