News of the shipwreck of the Sea Venture off the coast of Bermuda in 1609 is thought to have been the major impetus for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, one of only a couple of his plays that appear to be completely original. A few years before its first performance in 1611, there had been major floods in Wales, and those early audiences would have been well aware of the dangers that water – in all its forms – could create.
Elizabeth Freestone’s new production takes our new understanding of the problems of climate change as its impetus, and it’s an alignment that makes a lot of sense. Not only is there an admirable use of green sustainability in the construction of Tom Piper’s set, his costume design (with Natasha Ward) evokes all those worrying statistics about the amount of plastics in the sea, with the spirits of Rain, Sky and Earth partially clad in old carrier bags and plastic containers. Ferdinand litter picks the rubbish on the beach (he did kindly ask our section of the audience if we had any empties) – and this litter was genuinely collected from the beach at Weston-super-mare; you’ve got to respect the fact that the RSC are walking the walk on this one.
I’ve always had a bit of a problem with The Tempest. It’s one of those plays where you’re familiar with the major characters, and the quotable lines, and even the main plot (there’s a tempest, an island, lots of shipwrecked people and a whole shebang of sorcery) but for me it always feels stodgy. There are a number of long speeches and protracted conversations that can make the whole thing get bogged down, and, considering it’s Shakespeare’s second shortest text (after Comedy of Errors), it can feel rather long. Above all, there is little of the usual expectation for some Shakespearean conflict, or suspense, or dramatic tension. So it’s vital to accentuate the magic to give the play its necessary dynamism.
There are two occasions when magic rules the Stratford stage. The first is in the extraordinary first scene – the shipwreck that Prospero has caused – where the unlucky passengers and crew are tossed, turned and terrorised at sea. It’s a truly exciting start to the show, stunningly realised and beautifully performed by everyone. The second is Ariel’s Act Three Scene Three appearance as a harpy, to frighten the living daylights out of Alonso, Sebastian and the others. The costume is fantastic – and I really liked the comic touch with Ariel’s next appearance still wearing the harpy’s claw, as though it was a quick change routine that didn’t change quickly enough. A tiny attention to detail, but it subtly reveals the artifice of the magic – very nicely done. So, is this production the stuff that dreams are made on?
Not entirely. Unfortunately, the problems of climate change detract from the magic. Magic is all about illusion, creating the appearance that the impossible is possible; it’s delight and wonderment, and, for want of a better word, pizzazz. Climate change is the opposite. It’s reality, it’s hardship, it’s a step towards oblivion. Magic takes something of a back seat in this production; and even when magical things happen, they’re brought back to earth by the harshness of real life – like the detritus in the spirits’ costumes.
Consequently, the success of this production comes strongly from the incredible cast, each of whom bring the magic that might otherwise be lacking. You’ve got to start with Alex Kingston as Prospero. This is the first time I’ve seen Ms Kingston live and she is a truly charismatic stage performer. The whole show lights up whenever she’s on stage, and she brings true humanity to the role. Prospero is the one controlling force in The Tempest; everything and everyone is in his/her thrall, and Alex Kingston shows how that is completely possible. Her reading and understanding of the text is superb, and she makes the most intractable of Shakespeare’s language readily comprehensible.
Jessica Rhodes is steadily working her way towards being one of our brightest young actors – she was superb in Chichester’s Doubt last year, and her performance as Miranda here is even better. She conveys the character’s young innocence and total amazement at the presence of other people superbly well. Having Prospero as her mother, rather than her father, creates perhaps less of a “hero-worship” for the parent and more of a true devoted affection; an enviable mother/daughter relationship indeed. She is perfectly matched by Joseph Payne’s Ferdinand, an innocent abroad with an instant attraction to Miranda, and, even though we know his father is a villain, you’d be hard pressed not to be moved by his heart warming reaction to discovering Alonso is still alive.
Heledd Gwynn is superb as Ariel; she has a naturally ethereal quality that makes the character’s flighty tricksiness even more believable. This was the first time I’ve seen an Ariel who really made me believe that their true goal was to attain their freedom. This is no Puck, who’s happy to do whatever Oberon wants unquestioningly; this is a character who constantly expects this is the last time they will have to do their master’s bidding, yet is thwarted time and again. Tommy Sim’aan’s Caliban, by contrast, is no savage and deformed slave, as Shakespeare would have had it – there’s nothing remotely inhuman about him, which brings him more on a par with his co-conspirators Stephano and Trinculo, but at the same time maybe brings us further away from the idea of magic. Nevertheless it’s a very strong and clear performance.
Simon Startin and Cath Whitefield have (for me, at least) an enormous uphill struggle to make Stephano and Trinculo watchable, as I personally find those characters’ scenes rather tedious. Mr Startin’s Stephano is a clearly a distant relation to Barry Humphries’ Sir Les Patterson; Ms Whitefield’s Trinculo is entertainingly quirky and clownish. Peter de Jersey is excellent as Alonso, as is Jamie Ballard’s Antonio; but in fact all the cast are superb – there isn’t a weak link in the chain.
All in all, a thought-provoking new production, with excellent performances. Rooted in our climate crisis as it is, the magic never really soars; but its environmental message is received loud and clear.
Production photos by Ikin Yum