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.