The Tempest – February 2009


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Janice Honeyman

Company: RSC and Baxter Theatre Centre

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Wednesday 25th February 2009

Overall, this was an enjoyable and well trimmed production, full of energy, colour, music, dance and puppetry. The trimming and the brisk pace, while keeping the running time to two hours twenty, did lose a lot of the details, but it brought out the humour even more, and in the process gave the play a cartoonish aspect. Even so, I found some interesting ideas popping into my head, which added to the experience for me.

Looks-wise, the set was almost perfect. The tree (or trees) that swarmed over the back of the stage reminded me of the recent Love’s Labour’s Lost, but this tree was altogether more primitive and potent. It spread from wing to wing, and seemed to touch the roof. Branches arched in all directions, providing walkways and perches. The branches and trunks were bound with raffia-like weaving, holding them together, and giving them a makeshift, unreal aspect. To the right, a steep ramp curved up to meet the tree at a central point. To the side of this was a flight of steps, which led up to Prospero’s cell, back right. Underneath, there was an entrance to Caliban’s abode. To the left, in front of the tree, there was a raised curved slope, with rocks on it. Opposite it, on the right of the stage, there was a tree stump and another rock. The whole effect was very African, very aboriginal, and just the sort of place where magic could happen.

The opening scene puzzled me, until I read a program note about the Zulu belief that great serpents control the forces of nature, and when they move from one pool to another, they can cause great disturbances to the weather. At the start, Prospero (Antony Sher) appeared, and presumably summoned up this serpent to create the storm. It was a big bugger – easily as long as the diagonal of the Courtyard, if not longer – and Prospero bowed to it before it finally headed off. This was only the first of a magnificent array of puppets we were to see, and although I didn’t understand the significance at the time, I still felt it set the tone of other-worldliness and magic perfectly.

There were also some human-sized spirits who arrived after the snake left, bringing on the storm-tossed characters. They shepherded them over to the raised curve, and penned them there, as the music crashed around us all, and the actors bellowed their lines as best they could. I couldn’t make out a word of it, but I did enjoy looking at some brightly patterned sails that had dropped down over the stage, and which were flapping around to suggest the wind.

With the storm over, Miranda made her feelings known to her father, and this Miranda would be a shoo-in for the Jerry Springer show – she was totally unselfconscious and expressed her feelings easily, directly, and pretty much as soon as she felt them. I liked this performance very much. I found this interpretation of Miranda’s lack of social experience much more believable, and certainly more entertaining, than some recent productions (oh, alright, I preferred this to the Rupert Goold version). And this was also the liveliest and most involved Miranda I’ve ever seen. Her delight at seeing such a buff young man (Ferdinand was stripped to the waist for some time, so I speak with authority on this point) was expressed through a natural touchy-feeliness, which suggested their honeymoon will be a corker. No inhibitions there (at least not on her side).

Prospero’s explanation of their history was well done. When he talked about his love for his esoteric studies, he moved to his big magic book, which was displayed towards the back, and almost caressed it. I was very aware of how much he’d been distracted from affairs of state by this obsession. I also saw in Miranda the kind of free-spirited tomboy type that I’ve seen in other people who grew up abroad and had acres of space to roam around in, along with relatively few social pressures to conform. One of the themes this production was bringing out was the colonial aspects of the play, and this was the first time I was aware of that.

I found Ariel’s appearance a little disappointing, but I soon warmed to him when I saw his reaction to Prospero’s news that there would be more work to do. His face just fell, and when he threw his wobbly it was clear he felt hard done by. I got a sense of promise after promise being broken, goalposts constantly on the move, while Prospero was presumably still expecting the spirit world to obey his orders just as the men of his dukedom used to in the old days. I did have one passing thought as Prospero was describing how fate had brought his enemies into his reach – how did he know they were there? Yes, he’s a wiz at magic, but even so.

Ariel was scantily clad, and covered with patterns in white body paint. At the end, Prospero washed these off, symbolically releasing him, to his great joy. I realised that Prospero really does love Ariel; on a number of occasions he reached out to touch him, but Ariel is made of air, so he either held back or grasped nothingness, it was difficult to tell. Ariel was harder to figure. He wants Prospero’s love, but he also wants his freedom. When Prospero was contemplating his revenge on the bastards who betrayed him, holding a shotgun which he’s just loaded, it was clear he was out for revenge, despite his response to Ariel’s comments about being moved by their plight. Here it’s Ariel who, through his gesture, indicated that he was influencing Prospero to remember his better nature and forgive them – a reminder that primitive doesn’t necessarily mean barbaric.

Caliban was played by John Kani, and there was no attempt to make him look deformed or ugly. He was dressed pretty shabbily, and he may have ed badly if he wasn’t being allowed to wash often enough, but he was basically an elderly native man who’s been treated badly. He has his faults – he was ready to rape Miranda, and he didn’t spot the foolishness of the King’s servants until too late – but he’s not ugly and he’s not completely depraved. This is fine, as long as the production makes some use of that, but here they were basically telling the story in a fun way and leaving interpretation way behind. I didn’t feel much about this Caliban, not repugnance, not even sympathy, as he didn’t seem to be connected to the rest of the characters, although I did like the ending of the play. Prospero gave us the epilogue, up to the final lines, then picked up his suitcase to leave. Caliban arrived, and Prospero’s final request to be freed was addressed to him. He let Prospero go, and then, throwing away his walking sticks, he walked up the previously forbidden steps to the centre of the tree, and stood there, triumphant, spotlit. The lights went down to finish, and it was a bold and dramatically satisfying ending, suggesting a number of things. Native peoples regaining their land after the colonisers are removed from positions of power. The potential isolation and impoverishment of native populations if they completely cut off contact with the outside world, and specifically those who colonised their country – coming to terms with the past is better than rejecting it totally.

The thought also occurred to me that it was often those without power or riches in their own country who headed off to the colonies to make their names and/or fortunes – younger sons, poorer members of the upper classes, members of the lower classes with talent and probably bucketloads of ruthlessness. Don’t quite know if that fitted with tonight’s performance, but it did cross my mind towards the end.

Trinculo and Stephano were OK, but unremarkable. One good scene was when Ariel makes his comments to stir up trouble in the drunken group. He stood behind Trinculo, who was on the raised curve, and mimicked his movements beautifully. It was also clear that Ariel found the whole thing very funny. I wasn’t sure if he’d planned it – the usual interpretation – or if the first “you lie” just slipped out, and he liked it so much he did a few more. Anyway, it was one of the better bits with the clowns.

The King of Naples and his attendants were also a bit bland; however the way the spirits messed with their minds was great fun. For the feast, a large, box-shaped fish swam onto the stage, and after it settled in the middle of the stage, the top opened up and two spirits emerged proffering food. When the lords tried to eat something, the food was snatched away, the fish swam off as fast as its legs could go, and Ariel walked on balanced on mini-stilts – the curved spring type of leg – which raised him up a few feet. He wore a headdress with a beaked mask and red tresses, and looked pretty ferocious. He told off the king for his treatment of Prospero, linking that with the supposed loss of his son, and then the lords were chased off stage.

The puppetry was spectacular, and in many ways was the highlight of the show. When Prospero reminded Ariel of his previous torment at the hands of Sycorax, we were shown those hands, literally, trapping him in the pine tree. Puppeteers carried on various parts of Sycorax’s body on poles – two eyes, a nose, a mouth, hair, the two large hands and a pair of tits – and moved them into place so that Sycorax magically appeared. Her hands then grabbed Ariel and held him, illustrating his prison, and letting us see how Prospero freed him.

Later on, the little show that Prospero put on for Ferdinand and Miranda was also puppet-based, with lots of brightly coloured spirits joining in as well. In particular, there were two very tall puppets, a man and a woman; all of these taller puppets had to bend double to leave the stage, as none of the exits were tall enough for them. The clothes that distracted Trinculo and Stephano were carried in what looked like two haystacks. When they took the clothes, the haystacks unfolded to become another two ‘monsters’, which chased off the silly boys, scared out of their wits (not that they had much of those to begin with).

With so much cut out, I didn’t get the full emotional journey of the play, but I did enjoy myself, and it was never boring. I was reminded of the Magic Flute done by Impempe Yomlingo, while Steve was reminded of the magical Midsummer Night’s Dream, Indian-style, both of which we enjoyed. One of the best so far this year.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at

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