The Tempest – May 2013

Experience: 9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Venue: Shakespeare’s Globe

Date: Sunday 12th May 2013

An early start on a Sunday, a missed breakfast, no sign of a Sunday lunch(!), a poor selection of food at our destination and weather that started off mild and sunny but got colder and wetter; it just shows you how a tremendously good production can make us forget our worries and cares. We left the Globe with eyes sparkling (and not a little moist) after one of the best Tempests I’ve ever seen. The performances were all excellent and there were some interesting and novel staging choices which I hope I can remember long enough to note them up.

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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

The Tempest – October 2011

6/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Trevor Nunn

Venue: Theatre Royal, Haymarket

Date: Thursday 6th October 2011

This was disappointing, especially after the two much livelier Shakespeare productions we’ve just seen. I have no criticism for the actors, but the production itself was pretty bog standard and often dull, with just a few good sections to keep us in our seats. Admittedly, we were tired after all our travelling, but we’ve seen plays in similar circumstances and been enthralled; not so today.

My main problem was with the set. Prospero’s cell was to our left, and occupied the left-hand box in front of the pros arch. The boxes at the side were mostly swathed in blue cloth, which gave a sort of connection to the rest of the stage, but the fake boxes on either side of the stage, that were part of the Waiting For Godot set, were left as is, so I could only conclude that this deserted island just happened to have a crumbling theatre on it, which rather spoilt the picture. The brick wall at the back didn’t help either, and although this was masked for the performance, I never felt this was a remote island in any sea.

The use of wires to fly Ariel in and out, along with some of the other spirits, looked a bit clumsy at first, but after a while I accepted it, and by the masque scene I was enjoying the spectacle of several flying goddesses. Ariel’s makeup and movement were a bit jerky, as was the delivery of the lines, so not my favourite interpretation, but it worked well enough in this production.

Nicholas Lyndhurst was reasonably good as Trinculo, but Clive Wood seemed completely miscast as Stephano. Their routines with Caliban were moderately funny, but not as good as we would have expected from such strong casting, so clearly something’s gone wrong somewhere. The rest of the cast were OK, and the lines were spoken well enough, but there just wasn’t any sparkle to the performance, sadly.

One aspect of the staging I did like was the opening section, where Prospero came on stage, laid down his staff across the front of the stage, and conjured the storm as we watched. He then stood back as the crew came up through the hatches, and was a background presence for the early part at least – I didn’t notice him all the way through. Another interesting choice was to use two additional actors as extra Ariel’s – they were able to run around the ship causing mayhem, as described by Ariel later, and adding to the image of a mischievous spirit.

Ferdinand and Miranda were like a couple of teenagers, getting some funny facial reactions from Prospero. When he was talking to them, allowing them to be together, he can hardly get a word in edgeways at times because Ferdinand is so full of formal speeches himself. That worked well, but it wasn’t enough to lift the whole performance. There are better Shakespeare productions to be seen, and not all in London.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Tempest – March 2011

6/10

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

The Tempest – February 2009

7/10

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 ilovetheatre.me

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

The Tempest – YPS – September 2006

Experience: 3/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Patsy Rodenburg

Company: Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Monday 11th September 2006

I was a little disappointed with this, although there were a number of good points. The performances were generally good, but the delivery wasn’t always powerful enough, so lots of lines were lost. While I would agree with the cuts that had been made – the shipwreck, the performance of the goddesses, the fake feast – the resulting text felt a bit clumsy, and in some cases, where a ‘famous’ line had been kept, there were references that didn’t make sense in this version.

However, the staging worked well on the whole. The initial shipwreck is suggested with a piece of blue cloth held up, waist-high, by the characters on the ship (dressed in suits). At each end stands Ariel – in this production Ariel is being played by two actors, a man and a woman. This was a very unusual choice for me, and I thought it worked very well. In this case, it allowed the Ariels to start moving the cloth from side to side, causing the characters to sway, more and more, until eventually they are flung off, and leave the stage, while the Ariels float the cloth up like a roof. A very good evocation of the storm and shipwreck.

The dialogue starts with Miranda’s plea to Prospero to calm the storm, followed by his explanation (long overdue, it would seem) of their arrival at the island. Prospero has pictures which he gives Miranda to look at, of his disloyal brother, the King of Naples, and the good Gonzalo, this time played by a woman. As he mentions each one, the characters come on stage so we can see who they are; as an audience member, I always find this a helpful device.

Caliban is an unhappy creature, chained up when first we see him. He certainly doesn’t pay much attention to personal hygiene, but given the circumstances, that’s understandable. He tends to lope around on all fours, very like Crab in Two Gentlemen of Verona. I usually feel sorry for him; personally I think Prospero’s a bit of a control freak who’s taken over the island without a by-your-leave, and Caliban had every right to at least make a pass at Miranda, but I may be in the minority here.

Anyway, Prospero introduces Miranda to Ferdinand, achieves the desired result, and then we rattle through the attempts to cheer up the King, and the potential coup. I felt a lot of the humour was lost here, although some supporters behind us were doing their best to add a laughter track at every opportunity. (The giveaway was the laugh coming before anything funny had happened on stage.) But we do get a good sense of the King mourning for his son, believed dead. Meantime, Miranda and Ferdinand agree to marry, and after this we meet Trinculo and Stefano. Their business is so curtailed that it’s hard to make anything much of them. However, Trinculo is also played by a woman, and she gives the character all the trembling cowardice it needs, though the drunken scenes are weaker.

From here, it’s all straightforward to reconciliation, and a happy ending, finishing with Prospero’s ‘farewell’ to the spirits – no epilogue. I don’t think this play condensed as well as the others – I missed more than with the other YPS productions. But there were some good performances, and I dare say the children will enjoy this one – it’s very visual.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me