The Tempest at the RSC.

The Tempest

Royal Shakespeare Company

Hard to know where to start, really. Let’s get the negatives out of the way first. It was good that the RSC had managed to get some men to play a few of the men’s parts. They couldn’t get any men to play the women’s parts, though.

There is a great deal of clutter on stage because everything takes place in front of Prospero’s cave which appears to lie open to the elements. The purpose of much of the clutter is to justify some of the articles in the programme about deforestation, climate change and pollution, subjects we know very dear to Shakespeare’s heart when he wrote the play. And how lucky the characters are to find a piano on the desert island.

A crucial element in the set is when something huge and framed appears at the time of the (paltry) banquet scene. It suffers the same fate as the mirrored roof for the prison in Richard II: those at the top and on the sides can’t see it. Our rich friends who sat in the middle friend said it was a mirror, presumably a clumsy idea to show that the three men of destiny could see themselves as they were and recognise what they had done. A shame that it shows now familiar contempt by the RSC for those who have not paid top price for their seats. Tom Piper is too good a designer to fall for this. Having a large number of seats where the audience can’t see some of the set is becoming a wearisome feature of RSC productions.

Oh. And Shakespeare wrote such rubbish for the opening scene (one of his best opening scenes even if difficult to realise) that they rewrote it. Those who knew the play were mystified; those who didn’t couldn’t grasp it over the noise (music?) playing. And Shakespeare doesn’t know how to end the play either so this production ends with Caliban and Ariel speaking a language we don’t understand so that it can end with something about native languages, colonisation or another of those now dated old-fashioned post-colonialist ‘ideas’.

No more beefs. Well… there were the costumes: often ugly, sometimes silly, sometimes conceptual (like Prospero’s two odd trainers). Enough negatives, apart from the way Heledd Gwynne’s lovely voice as Ariel and gorgeous ‘flute’ playing was overpowered by the music in the performance we saw. Maybe as the run proceeds the sound balance will become more effective.

Elizabeth Freestone’s production highlights the ‘entertaining. All the comic stuff with Trinculo, Stephano and Caliban is played in full. The pageant with Iris, Ceres is Juno was beautifully costumed if attenuated, the actors divesting themselves of one layer of clothing to sing and then another to dance.

Alex Kingston is a really good Prospero. The mother/daughter relationship with Miranda enhances the play for a twenty first century audience. You can also hear every word she says, a mercy after the incomprehensible and inaudible opening to the play.

Quite a lot of the production details are inspired by the Ministry of Silly Walks. Few characters escape this banal trap but Tommy Sim’aan does as Caliban. He is a joy to watch and to listen to: nothing pretentious, nothing out of character, nothing at all which looks as if that is what he has been told to do. There is also a lot that I like about Joseph Payne’s Ferdinand. He was nice to look at, did the physical stuff well, for example as he rolls over and over following the directions of Prospero’s magic staff. There are several doses of drama school movement class group swaying, which I hadn’t seen for a long time. When you get to my age something can be so old fashioned that it becomes trendily modern again.

I thought that when we saw it at Preview there were three really good performances. If you want to come to see it and make your own judgments, countering the comments of this grumpy old man, come and stay at Moss Cottage where you will have a warm welcome. With luck there will also be something good to see by the Tread the Boards Company at the Attic theatre, too, while you are here.

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