21st March 2007
The RSC Tempest starring Patrick Stewart as Prospero starts with a coup de theatre – the shipwreck. The backdrop is a giant radio set, the dial becomes a window into the ship, while film of rough sea is projected onto the curtain. It’s a very effective shipwreck marred slightly by the fact that much of the dialogue – already distorted as if through a radio – is hard to make out.
The landing on the island is similarly spectacular. A giant curtain with a swirling of snowflakes projected onto it introduces a wintry, windswept isle. Although things slow down as Propero brings us up to speed with the story so far, the almost realistic beginning has lead into the magical setting of rest of the play.
However, the magic in the play, like the setting itself, is ‘rough’ and is reflected in the bleak and harsh set. It is a sharp contrast to what is normally expected of a Mediterranean island. Somehow we have moved to an indeterminate and dark far north, which reflects the mood of Prospero’s isolation. The mound of what appears to be ice in the centre of the stage provides an entrance point for characters to appear and observe. It has something Beckettian about it – almost as if Prospero is the male equivalent of Winnie in Happy Days.
Miranda – an excellent performance from Mariah Gale - is convincing as someone who has seen no other beings apart from her father or Caliban for her whole life. Her wonder and gaucheness at meeting Ferdinand and later the others from the shipwreck are believable, touching and amusing. Her reactions as the play closes lead to the suspicion that her avowal of love for Ferdinand may be transient and that trouble lies ahead.
Prospero is brought fully to life in Patrick Stewart’s portrayal and as always his verse speaking is exemplary. His ‘rough magic’ is perfectly embodied in Julian Bleach’s Ariel. Bleach’s first appearance gives another Beckettian visual frisson as he emerges from a dustbin like a character in Endgame. Later he glides round the stage in the manner of Nosferatu from F.W, Murnau’s silent expressionist film.
Abundant humour is provided by Joseph Alessi’s drunken butler and Craig Gazey’s jester. However some other performances are a little disappointing. John Light’s Caliban is rather dull, while Finbar Lynch’s King of Naples seems offhand especially when expressing grief at his son’s supposed drowning.
The music is effective and geographically ambiguous – highlighting the mystery and magic of the island. It is particularly well illustrated when three goddesses sing a song that is like a musical geographical tour from northern Europe to the Far East.
This is a robust Tempest that provides an entertaining and thought-provoking version of Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage. It has a bleakness of vision, coupled with magic and humour that is highlighted by the visual references to the work of Samuel Beckett.