By: William Shakespeare, edited by Peter Glanville and Phil Porter
Directed by: Peter Glanville
Venue: Swan Theatre, Stratford
Date: Thursday 24th March 2011
Interesting to see another collaboration between the RSC and Little Angel. This was similar to a Young Person’s Shakespeare, in that it was trimmed to an hour and a quarter, but the use of puppets made it a bit special. The audience included youngsters of all age groups, and while I felt the performance overall lacked atmosphere, there was a lot to enjoy in the interpretations, puppetry and music.
The cuts were deep, but they didn’t distort the story, nor leave me feeling I was missing out in any way. The shipwreck that begins the play was done as a puppetry mime with a wooden boat which obligingly split apart and was finally whirled off the stage to represent the apparent disaster. I had hoped to see it again, restored, but the need to work through all the much-doubled characters at the end presumably made that impossible. Prospero’s tale to Miranda, which can often put the audience to sleep long before Miranda gets heavy-eyed, was not only brief, but Prospero used a chess board and pieces to demonstrate the characters and story. This chess board makes a second appearance later, of course; here it was a useful tool and very engaging.
The shipwrecked lords are reduced to the basic four, and much of their dialogue is cut, as is the comedy with Trinculo and Stephano (“for this relief, much thanks”), and the drunk fighting stirred up by Ariel. The final scene is also minimalist, with Prospero having to deal with several groups of characters independently, and we’re left at the end with Caliban and a few seagulls, alone on the island.
The seagulls opened the play as well, and this was the first time I felt the pace was a bit too slow. Four seagulls coming on and flapping around, landing on various raised points and squawking a lot may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it didn’t inject much energy into the opening section. While admiring the skill of the puppeteers, the gulls themselves never folded their wings, which looked a bit bizarre (we see a lot of them down our way, so I should know). There were several occasions like this, when the puppets were on stage for too long, and while sometimes this may have been to give the actors time for a quick change, that can’t have been the case at the start. If this aspect was tightened up, I think the whole piece would benefit.
The set itself was brilliant. At the back of the stage was a massive chunk of decayed ship, with its timbers curved round like whale ribs, and providing a marvellously imaginative acting space, as well as setting the scene magnificently. Some piles of books were scattered around the stage, and there was a cloth curtain which came down in front of the ship’s remains a couple of time to good effect; otherwise, the stage was bare. The costumes were elaborate yet simple. Prospero looked like a man who’d been left on an island for many years, with pretty scruffy clothes and a rather wild expression – not quite Ben Gunn, but the scent of toasted cheese was definitely wafting up the foreshore. Miranda had a remarkably nice outfit for a girl who’d been castaway as a three-year-old, but it’s The Tempest, so who cares? The nobles were in splendid gear, very rich looking, and the king of Naples’ coat and hat were actually displayed to Ferdinand early on, which made it easy for us to recognise him later. Nice touch. Trinculo and Stephano were in livery, not so grand but clearly they work for someone important. Caliban didn’t have any clothes at all, and not even much of a body, poor chap, but I’ll come to him later.
After the seagulls have departed, Prospero starts the storm by running his staff up a curved plank of the ship, like striking a match. He has to do this a few times before the storm ‘lights’ (ain’t that the way of it?), and then the wooden ship does its dance of destruction. After explaining their situation to Miranda, he puts her to sleep under the ship’s planks, and calls for Ariel. Naturally, Ariel is manifested by a puppet, about two feet high(?), wearing a green outfit and having filmy wings which fluttered as he flew around the stage. I wasn’t taken with him at first, though I did get used to him, but the only time I found him expressive enough was when he curled up into a foetal ball when Prospero reminded him of Sycorax. When putting the lords to sleep, he put his hand on their head.
Caliban, on the other hand, was a much more robust specimen. He was bigger than the humans, quite lumbering, with holes in his body where the ribs showed through, a big monster-like face and a tail. It’s a bit of a leap to imagine him as a person that Prospero and Miranda would have civilised, but then we’re used to seeing human actors take this part. With all the talking dinosaurs, ants, whales, etc. that throng our screens these days, I suspect the younger folk in the audience at least would find him plausible. He did endear himself to us, though, and I felt quite sorry for him at the end. As someone said later, what would these youngsters think when they next see the play and are confronted with a more ‘traditional’ Caliban? It would be interesting to find out.
The furies that terrify the lords at the mock feast were delivered on large platter with domed covers, looking like a delicious meal. When the lids came off, they were three more puppets with monster-like ambitions, one of which was right beside us. The garment scene involved two beautiful dresses which take on a life of their own and dance with Stephano until they suddenly turn inside out and become two snarling dogs which chase them away from the stage. Beautifully done.
The masque scene was done by having Prospero open his book to two reflective pages, and with the curtain down, he directed a spotlight onto the curtain to represent a spirit form, while the part was sung by one of the actresses. After this, the light came from behind the curtain, and we saw two wire puppets, with the suggestion of human shape, moving around behind the curtain until Ferdinand and Miranda came forward and merged with these other shapes within a beam of heart-shaped light. Quite magical.
Other nice touches included the doll that Miranda carried at the start. It’s a miniature image of her, and once she meets Ferdinand she leaves it behind. Prospero sees this, and from the way he picks it up and holds it, it’s clear he recognises that his little girl isn’t a girl anymore. David Fielder as Prospero was very good, so much so that I would love to see him play the part in a full-scale production some time.
The music was new, and mainly consisted of songs that told the story from time to time. I quite enjoyed them – they’re a talented lot, these actors – but it didn’t add much, and some folk felt it slowed things down too much.
So not a bad attempt to blend the puppetry in with action, but the performance was a bit slow-paced for me to really get into it.
© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me