Thursday Night, 12 March 2009
The Tempest by William Shakespeare
RSC Courtyard Theatre, Stratford
Another night with the RSC and another lesson in handling Shakespeare when the director wants to “discover” a flavour of a modern theme in the midst of the script. Janice Honeyman believes that The Tempest will speak powerfully to the world of European Colonialism and African slavery. I believe that her direction and the text’s natural moral direction are at odds with each other and that her insistence on making this idea central to the production may have swamped the play just as badly as Alonso’s ship is swamped by Prospero’s magic.
In Shakespeare’s play, Prospero is stranded on a magic island through no fault of his own but because of the political ambitions of his brother and neighbours. Finding the island occupied by (amongst others) Caliban, son of Sycorax, a witch and erstwhile “queen” of the island and by Ariel, a spirit made prisoner by Sycorax, he is inventive in using his sad situation to his advantage. He learns magic to master the spirit-world and makes Ariel promises to serve him in return for being freed from Sycorax’s trap. The text makes clear that he makes Caliban an equal who studies with him. All of this happens whilst Prospero is struggling to raise his daughter, Miranda, on the island, who as his sole heir has been stranded there with him. The arrangement goes well until as Miranda grows in age and beauty, Caliban attempts to rape her and is made subject to the punishment of becoming servant to Prospero.
Honeyman wants to weave the thread of colonialism into this but wants to do so by ignoring these latter facts. So for her, Caliban is simply subjugated unfairly and little is made of his villainy. Consequently, when he teams with Trinculo and Stephano to overthrow Prospero, this is not a foolish sub-plot engineered by drunks but the work of freedom fighters who just happen to be drunkards partnered by a would-be rapist. These niggling facts in the text are unfortunate but they will not be silenced or go away.
Likewise, when at the conclusion, Prospero offers his sadness for his “crime” of leaving the island and ending the audience’s entertainment, Honeyman has Caliban wander into place at the appropriate part in the speech to receive a request for pardon for crimes from Prospero. In this production, the crime is that Prospero has subjugated Caliban, the natural ruler of the island. But, unfortunately, the text will not support this and the RSC will not go so far as twisting the words of the Bard.
The morality of the text has to be concerned with a Duke who is usurped from his position and stranded by his enemies using magic to achieve his ends. The means of magic would be dubious in the eyes of God to the ears of Shakespeare’s original audience but Prospero is restored by its use and only when this is done does he repent of his incantations. Caliban is the local villain he must deal with to protect his beautiful daughter whilst carrying out his plan. UItimately, in Shakespeare’s play, Prospero is the hero but an unusual one and we are left to wonder how apparent dubious means are used to bring about a good end and allowed by a watching Christian God who abhors their use.
In this production, Prospero is a colonising villain and Caliban who has no redeemable qualities in the play, until he asks grace from God in the final scenes, is the sad and downtrodden figure who is badly done to. This is certainly evident in the props and visualisations that are used but cannot be found on the printed page or on that screen for the hard-of-hearing which this evening has an annoying habit of reminding us of the true moral centre of the play.
So what do we have? A play production that has immense colour, wonderful sound and that is a true spectacle in every sense of the word. Spectacle that a West End musical would be envious of.
We have wonderful performances — by Anthony Sher as Prospero, Tinarie Van Wyk Loots as Miranda, Atandwa Kani as Ariel, and John Kani as Caliban. Miranda is all wonder and innocence. The benighted Caliban’s broken spirit (in this production) is created and held beautifully. Sher’s Prospero is suitably touched by the madness of the magic world he has entered. Wayne Van Rooyen as Trinculo and Elton Landrew as Stephano earn their laughter with marvellous individualistic performances. We have a dominant African setting which is necessary and appropriate for a play which is set on a fictional island not far from Tunis. All these are a positive boon and serve Honeyman’s vision well. On the other hand, a number of the other roles and members of the cast are a little insipid but whether this is their weakness or whether the other acting interpretations are so large that they make the other character’s seen less important, I could not decide. Certainly, Charlie Keegan’s Ferdinand is physically admirable but his lack of acting experience also shows a little too clearly.
So in the end, I think we are left with a larger-than-life production which does battle with the text rather than drawing it out. You will see a great show but you will not necessarily see Shakespeare’s mind that well. Whether that can ever make for great Shakespeare is a real dilemma.