Brightly shone the noontide sun

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.

Statement

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.

Interval

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).

Caliban tried to ingratiate himself with his new overlords, audibly smartening his accent when asking Stephano if he would “hearken once again to the suit I made to thee”, regarding his plot to kill Prospero.

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.

Iris spoke in a squeaky voice and magically produced a flower using a conjuring trick, staring and the audience and proudly announcing “yaha!”, which distinguished her from sassy Ceres. Not often are these two minor characters so distinctly differentiated.

Prospero mouthed Iris’s injunction that the marriage should not be consummated “till Hymen’s torch be lighted” in another comic touch highlighting his concern.  The romantic shower of confetti that rained down from the upper galleries added to the atmosphere.

However, the celebratory formal dance turned into an extended comic sequence as Prospero tried and failed to prevent Ferdinand from partnering with Miranda. When the rotation of dance partners brought them together, he would swoop to separate them, only to find his efforts frustrated when the couples reformed for the following round.

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.

Conclusions

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.


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