The Tempest – September 2012

(unrated)

By William Shakespeare

Directed by David Farr

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 27th September 2012

I had such an unusual experience tonight that I can’t rate this performance properly. I left the auditorium shortly after the second half started – apologies to anyone I disturbed on the way out – and was let back in round the other side after a few minutes by the very helpful ushers they have at the RSC. As it turned out, my view was probably better than Steve’s for that half as a result, with a string of characters standing in front of him for long periods. We’ve heard from various actors at the RSC that they’ve been told not to stand still for more than thirty seconds: they may have been told, but from our experience they’re not actually doing it as often as they should. After I came back in, I was sitting right round the side on the left of the auditorium, and my only problems were the overhang and a pillar which between them blocked a good deal of the action. However the audience around me were a good deal quieter than the couple behind our original seats, and since that’s why I walked out I was considerably happier, even before I found out about the blocking Steve had suffered after my departure.

So with all this going on it wouldn’t be fair to rate this evening’s efforts; I wouldn’t want to pin a low experience rating on what was a decent enough set of performances. I would be happy to pin a very low rating on the set and production though, and I’ll explain as I go along. We did see this play back in May, but I nodded off a fair bit then and so didn’t do proper notes; this will be the main record for this production and I’ll include the points I have noted down from the previous performance.

The set was basically the same as for the other two plays, but not as cluttered. There were rocks strewn about the place and some gaps in the flooring. Some of the lumps on the stage were shaped like bits of a statue; I surmised these could be bits of a ship’s masthead which were mouldering on the island after Prospero and Miranda were wrecked there. There was a small table and chair on the right of the stage with a black object on the table; I thought at first it was a telephone but it turned out to be a radio receiver. At the back on the right was a large Perspex box with a door, which served as Prospero’s cell and was used for various effects; the box could be clear or obscured by different lighting and some smoke effects.

Prospero wore a suit for most of the play, and it had obviously seen better days. There was a sandy stain running down the right side of the jacket and a few rips and tears. Miranda wore a dress last time, but tonight she had a white vest and shorts made out of a pair of her father’s trousers. This made more sense, as Gonzalo might have smuggled clothes for a child on board the ship, but would he have provided an entire wardrobe for a growing girl? The boat wasn’t that big after all. Still, she magicked up a fetching green frock for the final scenes (runs in the family) while Ferdinand was back in his immaculate naval uniform with its white jacket and coloured sash. The rest of the Italians wore appropriate modern dress for their status, with a female Sebastian in a deep pink figure-hugging dress and matching shoes, most of the courtiers wearing suits, and Stephano and Trinculo in appropriate uniforms for their jobs as butler and cook.

Ariel’s costume was interesting. He wore a suit which matched Prospero’s exactly, from the stain to the rips, and I had the impression that he was an airy spirit who had chosen to embody in the same form as Prospero, his master. When Prospero changed clothes at the end, coming out of his cell in a smart navy suit (the colour, not the armed service) Ariel reacted with fascination. It was as if he hadn’t realised that the clothes Prospero wore weren’t part of him (cf. the Doctor Who episode “The Doctor Dances”). I was seeing this from behind, mind you, so my interpretation may be wonky on this point. Ariel went over to Prospero and touched the jacket, feeling the cloth (we think – Steve’s view was blocked as well) and then buttoned the jacket up. Prospero was quite moved by this reaction from his fairy servant. There were other spirits, but I wasn’t sure if they were actually other spirits or simply other manifestations of Ariel; given his power that wouldn’t be surprising, and the way they all left at the end strongly suggested that was the intention – I’ll describe that bit later.

The play began with Miranda sitting at the table doing her homework using a chalk and slate. The radio began to crackle, then came a ‘mayday’ call, and then the storm scene was played out in the Perspex box, with the dialogue being played over speakers to indicate that Miranda was hearing all this on the radio. This certainly explained how she knew about the storm and the supposed fate of those on the ship, but it didn’t make for the greatest clarity in the dialogue. Nick Day was good, as usual, and the boatswain occasionally came to the front of the box and bellowed so we could hear some of his lines, but the rest was lost. I found myself tuning it out and losing interest during this bit, though as I know what’s supposed to be happening it didn’t matter too much.

Prospero’s narration of the back story was next up, and while Jonathan Slinger’s delivery was clear, it was also very slow and deliberate. He chose to deliver many of these lines in short bursts, leaving pauses that were sometimes ridiculously long, and the lack of flow meant that I felt my energy drop considerably – now I know why I nodded off so much last time. Peaceful oblivion was denied me tonight; there were times when I would have liked nothing better than to spend time with Morpheus, but it was not to be. At least these notes will cover more of the staging as a result, so all’s well that ends well. (Now where have I heard that before?)

From last time I remember that Miranda’s reactions to her father’s story were excellent – I assume the same was true tonight – and even if it took too long we were pretty clear about who had done what to whom. We also had some insight into the father and daughter relationship, with Prospero even checking Miranda’s work on the slate during the scene. When Ariel had his mini-rebellion, Prospero went into his cell, and I wasn’t sure if he heard Ariel’s complaints or whether Ariel was simply talking out loud to himself, which in its own way was a moving sight. As part of his lecture, Prospero had Ariel sit at the table like a naughty schoolboy to teach him his lesson yet again. Sandy Grierson played Ariel, and I thought it was the best performance of the evening. He moved in a slightly unnatural way, with angular movements which suggested he was imitating human behaviour as best he could. He also sang beautifully – the best vocal musical performance of the season – and that’s an important attribute for any Ariel.

With Ariel brought back into line, Prospero woke Miranda (has she ever fallen asleep for real, I wonder?) and she was standing on the stage when Ariel brought Ferdinand on, still caught up in a spell. Ferdinand didn’t see the others at first, but when he did he was naturally attracted to Miranda, and so Prospero’s plan began to unfold. Ariel was sitting on a rock slightly behind Ferdinand when he drew his sword, so Ariel grabbed it and we had a laugh at the way Ferdinand was struggling to get his sword back.

When the King of Naples and his attendants arrived, Sebastian and Antonio stood at the front corners to pass their comments on the others; while I could hear and see them perfectly well, the action they were commenting on was a little obscured, and again my knowledge of the play came to the rescue. Even so, I was getting a little tired of the dullness of the set, and the lighting was so flat and stark that I was beginning to wish for slumber. Ariel came on using an instrument that looked like a metal xylophone with the bars arranged out of order. He played one of the bars with a violin bow, making a haunting, eerie sound which caused all but Sebastian and Antonio to fall asleep. Antonio’s seduction of Sebastian was OK, but I did find myself wondering, given that Sebastian was a woman, whether she could automatically assume that she would succeed to the kingdom. Perhaps I’m being too picky, but despite Elizabeth’s reign it was still a tough task for a woman to gain and then hold a crown in those days. Of course nowadays it’s fine, and since this was a modern dress production perhaps we were meant to ignore these points.

One aspect of this production which I did like was the performance of Amer Hlehel as Caliban. He wore a very tattered version of Prospero’s suit, as if he’d been given a decent one years ago but his menial workload had reduced it to rags. He also stood upright, didn’t look deformed or ugly, and spoke well, with the occasional glimpse of dignity. Fair enough, he’d wanted to rape Miranda, who would presumably have been under age at the time, but given the circumstances of the island it’s not that surprising. This casting and performance emphasised Prospero’s need for control, with the suits suggesting he was trying to recreate everyone else in his own image. I felt sorry for Caliban at times, especially when he cried “freedom” at a time when he was basically committing himself to slavery for a different and unworthy master.

Trinculo and Stephano were fine, another good comedy pairing of Felix Hayes and Bruce Mackinnon. I was starting to enjoy the humour a bit, and their lines were certainly clear. Using a recognisable glass bottle of whisky when Stephano clearly states that he made the bottle out of the bark of a tree was a bit puzzling, but then this island is full of magic, so who knows what may have happened? They cut Caliban’s song at the end of their first scene, which I was happy about, while their second scene gave us a fun start to the second half. Caliban carried on a strip of optics, some with bottles attached which had some liquor in them. Trinculo caught it deftly when Caliban let it go – there’s a man who likes his drink. Ariel stirred up the usual mischief by saying “thou liest” several times, which had us laughing a lot, mainly at Felix Hayes’ reactions.

Ferdinand brought on some planks as part of his chores, but soon put them down to talk with Miranda. Two of the spirits had come on stage at the start of this scene and sat on rocks at the front and back of the stage holding a rope between them. It was held just off the ground throughout the scene, like a skipping rope, but nothing else was done with it. I think there was more done to keep the two young people apart last time, but I don’t remember what; either way it was a strange bit of staging with no clear purpose. The courting between the two youngsters was fine, and Prospero came on from the back to keep an eye on things and then break it all up. Was it during this scene that the noise got too much for me and I left the auditorium?

I returned in time for the harpy scene. Just before the restart, Ariel had come on stage and this time I realised he was sewing a part of his harpy costume – a nice touch. It also meant he was on stage for the arrival of the clowns. Now a feast was laid out on a table for the famished lords, and when Gonzalo tasted the food he pronounced it excellent. Before they could eat though, the harpy descended from the sky at a tremendous rate – Ariel in a black spiky costume, half spider, half bat – and scared the shit out of them. I couldn’t see him properly from my seat – Steve had a better view. I forget how the lords left the stage, but then came the masque scene, and this was very well done.

After Prospero’s dire warnings about pre-marital sex, Ferdinand and Miranda sat down on a rock near the front of the stage to watch the spectacle. The goddesses were played by three actresses, done up in Elizabethan style gowns. The first was lowered down to stand on top of the box, the second came out of a hole near the front of the stage as far as I could see, and the third came out from the box. They may have been played by actresses, but they were actually puppets, marionettes manipulated by one or other spirit, with Ariel himself working Juno. The goddesses moved like puppets, and the spirits moved with them so the effect was magical, appropriately enough. I saw this better last time, but I could still see enough to enjoy it this time although I wasn’t really getting the dialogue for this bit.

When Prospero remembered the dastardly plan which Caliban had set in motion, he chased everyone away and then crumpled up on one of the rocks, looking overwhelmed with misery at what he had to deal with. Ariel came and sat beside him, and again there was surprise for Prospero at Ariel’s awareness. He told Ariel to put the clothes on “this” line –  no line was visible, but the spirits came up through the holes wearing the fancy garments which were also in Elizabethan style, slightly odd in terms of this production but never mind. As Stephano crept ever closer to the cell door, Trinculo suddenly noticed the gaudy apparel and soon they were having a clothing frenzy, grabbing everything they could and stacking the surplus up on Caliban to carry away with them. As each spirit had its fancy clothes removed, it slipped back down through the hole it had come up from.  They soon returned with wolf masks on, and chased the naughty threesome off the stage.

So to the final act. Ariel’s expression of potential pity moved Prospero (and me). The King of Naples was brought on stage with his court, still spellbound, and while they gradually came to their senses, Prospero went to change his clothes, and that was when Ariel checked out the new suit.

After Prospero announced himself to the others, he took Sebastian and Antonio aside to warn them that he knew what they’d been up to. He also got the ring of his dukedom back from his brother, and then gave him a hug (ah). Miranda and Ferdinand were revealed playing chess in the cell, and everything was heading for a happy ending, especially when the ship’s crew turned up and informed the King that their ship was fine. Only Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano remained to be dealt with, and they gave us some final laughs before everyone went into the cell apart from Prospero and Ariel.

When Prospero freed Ariel, Ariel took off his jacket and dropped it at Prospero’s feet and the other spirits stuck their heads up through the other holes in the stage. Ariel then turned and held the sides of the hole nearest to him, dropping into it gently with his head still sticking up. At a gesture from him, all the spirits disappeared at the same instant, which is what led me to believe they were all intended to be aspects of Ariel. Prospero’s request for applause was again rather stilted, so although I’m familiar with the play I wasn’t absolutely sure when he’d finished. We figured it out eventually though, and there was decent applause all round.

There were a couple of strange choices that haven’t come up in these notes so far. One was Gonzalo’s accent, which was frequently and clearly East End, but with Nick Day’s plummy voice it sometimes glided into posh RP. I have no idea why this choice was made. The other event was when some figures appeared in the smoke-filled cell wearing Elizabethan ruffs and moving as if they were drowning or at least moving under water. There was some reference to the King of Naples and his people at the time, but I couldn’t see what the connection was. Overall, I felt the set design lumbered the production with too much unnecessary detail, and while some of the staging choices worked very well, others were a distraction. The flatness of the lighting when viewed from the front bleached all the energy out of the performance as well, while from the side the same lighting made interesting shadows which lifted the set up from the mundane.  Unless this pointless variation is part of the grand plan, they really need to have people checking these things out from all parts of the auditorium in future. The use of the Perspex box was also unfortunate, as they sometimes shone lights directly onto it from the front and the glare nearly blinded us. As Steve pointed out, if he’d wanted to listen to a radio play he wouldn’t have spent the money on top-price tickets to the theatre.

These problems aside, I did like the performances, and we’re hoping for improvements in the way this stage is used now that Greg’s taken over.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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