What do we have here?

Surprising and delightful things from David Farr and The Tempest

What: The Tempest by William Shakespeare

Where: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon

When: 6th September 2012

Sometimes in life you make a mistake. Normally, I attend a production of a Shakespeare play at Stratford-Upon-Avon near the beginning of its run. In 2012, there have just been too many new productions to fit in with all the other commitments in life. So when many months ago I sat down to plan my diary for 2012, I had to come up with a plan. My dilemma – choosing which to see as they opened and which would have to settle for a viewing-and-reviewing later in their run. Something was going to have to give way. Now productions of “King John” and “Troilus and Cressida” don’t come along every day so into the diary they went. And what was “Shakespeare’s Shipwreck Trilogy”? Three plays being presented as a trilogy when all the author gave them in common was a boat going down and survivors being washed ashore – now that sounded like directorial contrivance. Being no fan of directorial ideas that don’t fit well with the original text (see some of my other recent RSC reviews); I decided that I could stagger my attendance of this “trilogy” through the run. Oh, was I wrong!

King John was poor. Troilus and Cressida was a car crash. “The Tempest” is a marvel and a directorial masterpiece. And this was the part of the trilogy that I chose to see last!

“Comedy of Errors” was the Comedy of Errors. A light-hearted slapstick comedy with nothing too heavy in its fluffy centre – just the way the Bard intended it (on the whole). Twelfth Night was well-done but with a yellow cross-gartered streak of Malvolio which didn’t fit with the rest of the recipe. “The Tempest”, however, even with some exotic ingredients that I wasn’t sure should be included was cooked-to-perfection and proved just the right flavour.

Three years ago, Anthony Sher worked on “The Tempest” at Stratford, a production which was described by one writer as “revelatory”. Set on an African-flavoured island (I guess), it found flavours in the plot that weren’t obvious but seemed genuine. I enjoyed it greatly and felt that it did the play justice. Now in 2012, David Farr’s production returns us to a setting which is the magical island of the traditional rendering of the play but it draws out such believable characteristics and riddles in the principal characters of Prospero and Miranda that are also true to the heart of the play – so good setting and believable directorial fingerprints – and even more engaging and revealing than Mr Sher’s work on the play.

Too often recently there have been in the work of the RSC,  directorial interpretations that I accused of being so obscure that they failed to engage and persuade this part of the audience that they were arising naturally from the ideas on Shakespeare’s folio page. They were not to my taste but overhearing a conversation in a Stratford restaurant yesterday amongst arts scholars added to my feeling that this was more than just my prejudice. Their conversation rounded on “King John” and ”Troilus and Cressida” with a similar vigour that  I had. Here was the production but where was Shakespeare? The director ruled overall and he (in their view and mine) had failed to make the text even an equal partner.

Snooping on private conversations? Well, they were talking rather loudly.

There have been notable exceptions where directorial inflections have not ended in metaphorical shipwreck. For example, Julius Caesar moved from Rome to Africa but kept the sense of the play intact. And now we come to a very successful “The Tempest” where the director identifies key themes, the complexity of Prospero’s character and the whole notion of redemption, and explores them by interpreting the roles in a way which feeds from the text and given us insights which he has persuaded the actors to really believe in.

Prospero’s story it seems to me is about redemption and not  in the religious sense. He has contrived to buy himself freedom from the trap that has been made for him. In order to do this he must use the powers of the island to bring others into his schemes. He must also enslave others – Ariel the Spirit and Caliban who he persuades of his love only to treat him callously and cruelly and to introduce in his life a worse kind of slavery and abandonment than Prospero has ever faced at the hands of the island and its mysteries. Prospero’s behaviour is mostly wicked. And the play begs the question of whether evil means can be used to achieve good.

Prospero portrays himself to Miranda as being a good man, albeit ill-used and his plotting and planning is done while she sleeps. Mr Farr perhaps re-points the redemptive theme here. If someone is set free perhaps it is Miranda who in discovering the love of Ferdinand and humanity that serves and loves rather than controls is set free from the control and manipulations of Prospero.

That idea of control is fully explored here. Shakespeare’s idea seems to be that the island controls the events but here it is Prospero’s controlling which is seen most clearly. Every being he controls becomes an image of his physical self (Slinger and the others look a little like a weedy version of DC Comics’ Solomon Grundy) and required to do the wickedness he wills. In fact, the similarity is so strong it makes you wonder – is that Prospero or Ariel? Slinger or one of the other actors? Many Spirits are depicted and all the male ones resemble Prospero. None more so than Ariel. Sandy Grierson as Ariel is a dead ringer for Jonathan Slinger’s Prospero except he has no shoes. At times you have to do a double-take to realise you are looking at Ariel rather than Prospero and when you are confused it is the shoes that are the give-away – the division between slave and master. Ariel wants to be free but is utterly at his master’s whim and control. Prospero is a kind of god on the island and Shakespeare’s plays are under-pinned with the “Christian” ethics of his day. The extent of Prospero’s wickedness is shown in that when he wishes to make the later shipwrecks fearful, this god is willing to make his slave appear in the very manner that they might expect to see the Devil.

The rest of the cast acquit themselves well but it is Jonathan Slinger and Sandy  Grierson who acquit themselves best. This is particularly pertinent for this review as I have been very negative about Mr Slinger in the rest of this trilogy and lukewarm about his Macbeth in earlier performances. His Malvolio wasn’t for me and his role in “The Comedy Of Errors” was the low point of the performance for my money. So let me make it clear that here he is outstanding and I’m now looking forward to his role as Hamlet next year. He is a perfect match for David Farr’s direction and he brings so much richness into the role of Prospero as Farr envisions it.

If there was a weak point in the cast then the casting of Kirsty Bushell as the heir Sebastian. Miss Bushell was due a little variety. Her role in The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night had required much the same from her: a strong, beautiful and strident woman. But asking her to play the part of the male Sebastian in female dress was perhaps a little miscasting. There has been much said about the lack of female roles in Shakespeare in various circles this year but I do not think this is the solution.

Emily Taafe as Miranda is especially worthy of praise as she was in Twelfth Night.

Given the late date that I saw this play and the delay in posting my review of it because of my health, I can only say that you probably have missed a treat. The strange trilogy that the RSC chose to pursue had far more strengths than weaknesses and 2013 which has seldom-performed plays like “Titus Andronicus” looks a lot brighter than it did leaving the theatre after “Troilus and Cressida” {shudder}.

One thought on “What do we have here?

  1. Pingback: Shakespeare Reviews | twilightdawning

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