The Tempest – September 2006

Experience: 3/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Rupert Goold

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 28th September 2006

I was a bit disappointed with this production – I expected it to be better than it was. There were some aspects I liked, but on the whole I found it uninteresting and somewhat dull.

Before the start, a screen at the front of the stage showed a painting of some sort of radio receiver, on a huge scale. The opening lines were unusual – a shipping forecast that mentioned “North” and “Iceland”, and gave a storm warning in the traditional clipped form of such broadcasts. The speaker part of the radio then faded as the lighting behind revealed the ship’s radio cabin, where all the storm action took place. Ariel appeared towards the end of this scene, to indicate his involvement in the adverse weather conditions.

The good point about this staging was that the lines were fairly clear, and we got a chance to see the various characters – John Hopkins as Sebastian showing his craven character from the off – and Ariel’s arrival was interesting. However, I found the whole sequence off-putting for a number of reasons. Firstly, the shipping forecast makes it clear that the island we’ve arrived at is either Iceland, or somewhere else in the north Atlantic – a frozen waste instead of a Mediterranean rock. Those sailors must have been extraordinarily bad to have arrived in the North Atlantic from Tunis, headed for Naples! If they wanted to get across the connotations of Iceland (barren waste, prison-like, possible Frankenstein?(this was Steve’s thought)), surely we didn’t need such a specific reference. Secondly, the cramped cabin, while making the point that the aristocrats are seriously in the sailors’ way, does make the scene pretty static, and the sense of a life-threatening storm is lost. (Although Jean-Luc’s experience at synchronised ship-rolling probably came in useful here.) Nor did it help that Ariel reminded me of Lurch, the Addams’ family butler. All in all, not the most auspicious start.

Second up, we have Prospero’s account of the family history to Miranda. The scene opens with Prospero standing at a brazier, with his back to us, wearing a fur rug attached to a head-dress made out of an animal’s sacrum and tail bones. Or as I thought at first, some alien life-form that had invaded the island while Prospero wasn’t looking. (I suppose it was inevitable that Star Trek references would start to pop up in what is, after all, a pretty surreal play by Shakespeare’s standards.) The scruffiness of their home, the need for serious warmth on a Mediterranean isle that just happens to be in the North Atlantic, all these things I could live with. I wasn’t taken with Miranda, though. I accept that she’s been on this island from a young age, with only her father and Caliban for company, so she doesn’t know much about the outside world or social graces. And there’s no reason why daughters of aristocracy or royalty always have to be good-looking – our own royal family proves that. Still, I wasn’t keen on a Miranda who looks and acts like a ten-year-old who would rather be playing with her dolls than getting interested in the opposite sex. Her gawkiness was matched by an expression which made her look more pugnacious than usual, although her manner was anything but. In fact, this character could have slept through the entire play for all the animation she displayed. Not a criticism of the actress, who was fine later on as Portia in Julius Caesar, but another way in which this production failed to engage me. It made it hard to believe that Ferdinand would have fallen for her – it may just have been strategy on his part, but it wasn’t played that way as far as I could see. I also found Ariel’s first appearance here rather comic – he pops up out of the brazier! All we see is his head sticking up. Given that I found his appearance pretty funny anyway, I couldn’t take this seriously, although his later ‘magical’ appearance from behind the door was more effective.

Apart from the cramped cabin, the set was a barren landscape, with a mound of debris slightly off-centre, and bits of plank etc., sticking out of it. There were a few poles forming some kind of support for an upturned half-boat, or what was left of it. This appeared to be Caliban’s only shelter, and he’s hiding inside this boat when we first encounter him. As he’s attached to it by a long rope, he also drags it round with him, and it becomes his cover during the storm when Trinculo discovers him. One aspect of the production I liked was the repetition of this dragging theme – Caliban drags his boat, and also some logs. Ferdinand also drags logs, and there were other echoes of this throughout the play. I found this a good visual theme.

Caliban is not as gruesome in this version as in some I’ve seen. He’s a bit mucky, true, and also tends to walk on all fours, but he’s not hideously deformed or ugly. Again, I felt sorry for him, but then I’ve rarely found Prospero a sympathetic character, and his treatment of Caliban is the main cause for that. The business with Trinculo and Stefano was amusing, full of sexual innuendo, but I only laughed out loud once, towards the end, at a bit of business I’ve now forgotten. The kids in the audience loved it, and it was certainly in keeping with Shakespeare’s comedy, but again it left me largely unmoved. There never seemed to be any real threat to Prospero from this group, which can happen.

The scene Prospero conjures up for the young lovers was very different from the standard. The three fairies rose from one of the bunk beds in the cabin, and proceeded to carry out a form of marriage ritual, using earth, fire, water and cloth. All the while they produced a weird chanting, which took a little getting used to, but I did like it. There was none of the usual goddesses, and I found this refreshing, and much more in keeping with this reading of the play.

The King of Naples and his cronies were OK, but without distinction. Ferdinand was fine, but with nothing much to play against, this character on his own couldn’t make a real difference. I did like the fake feast, though. The fairies brought on a large seal (deceased) on a sledge. The nasty folk fell to, hands full of bloody blubber, while the good guys stood aloof. Then Ariel bursts forth from the seal carcass, with additional wire effects of wings and claws, and scares the shit out of everyone. Excellent. Incidentally, this Ariel was on a go-slow. I’ve seen this done before – a steady, graceful glide rather than a nimble hyperactive sprite, and it can work very well. Here it was OK, but didn’t add anything for me.

          One thing that did work, though, was the exchange between Prospero and Ariel, where Ariel’s own sense of pity for the wrongdoers’ suffering here effectively triggers Prospero’s own forgiveness. He was obviously heading for resolution anyway, but I got the feeling Ariel’s expression of pity surprises Prospero, and softens his plans somewhat. I could be wrong, but that’s how I took it.

          So now I suppose I have to tackle the hardest subject of all – what I thought of the central performance. Look, I’ve enjoyed so much of Patrick Stewart’s work that I hate having to say anything less than ‘he played a blinder’. Indeed, till this season, I didn’t think I’d have to, such is the man’s talent and experience. I guess I’ll just have to accept that this reading of the play didn’t work for me. I couldn’t get any real sense from the performance of the man’s past, nor much sense of his emotional journey through the events of the play. Unless it was meant to be an unsympathetic reading, in which case, fine. But I couldn’t help feeling there was a lot more to be got out of this major part, and I just wasn’t seeing it. Ah well.

Overall, I felt the staging worked against the text in too many ways, and brought the whole production down.

[Update from the front lines: Steve saw this again in London, and confirmed that it had come on a great deal since we saw it in Stratford. The performances were more expressive, some of the staging had been changed, especially in the scene where we first see Prospero, and he felt it was a much better performance than before.]

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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