The Tempest, directed by Jeremy Herrin, Shakespeare’s Globe, 6 August 2013.
Review by Pete Orford
This was a troublingly untroubling production. With a group of students in tow, I had primed them all on key themes and characteristics to look for in the drama, not least the colonial echoes in Prospero’s enslavement of Caliban. How would this production represent this issue? Well, frankly, it didn’t. After a century or more of tortured Calibans and oppressive Prosperos, this Tempest was all rather jolly. It was – and I say this in a quiet voice for fear of being thrown out of academia – fun. And – a worse crime yet – I rather enjoyed it, nor was I alone: the production had sold out with an impressively long queue for returns. In other words, skipping the academic anxieties and playing it out simply has worked.
Is that allowed? As academics we are honour-bound to reference all preceding trends and schools of thought, setting our own ideas atop them be they supporting or attacking. Often this means that certain views of plays become formalised challenges that must be addressed. The Tempest without the tension? Next you’ll be showing The Merchant of Venice where Shylock is an outright villain, The Taming of the Shrew where Kate learns to know her place, or a Henry V where we cheer the king on without doubt. But you know what, theatre doesn’t have to footnote, nor impress its friends with the size of its bibliography. So here the anxieties of race, slavery and persecution were simply avoided and the whole drama played for laughs – well, the Folio does class it as a comedy after all; though a reader might be hard-pressed at times to find the jokes.
It was the initial few moments as the comic approach was confirmed that were most unsettling. After the initial storm scene was acted out, the discussion between Prospero and Miranda was punctuated by laughter from the audience as Prospero recalled his woe more like a cheery gossip than a deposed duke, all of which came as a shock and yet, on reflection was a necessary transition to prepare the audience for the tone of the play; the acting in general was big, with grand gestures and frequent knowing looks thrown to the audience. Roger Allam’s Prospero was on the whole rather a kindly old soul, as though not the Duke of Milan, but Santa Claus had been banished to the island (it must have been a hard Christmas for the children of Milan these past twelve years). Yet while the comedy always succeeded in raising a laugh, at times the grumpy old academic in me wondered whether it was doing so at the cost of clarity or depth. The earnestness of Ferdinand’s speech as he carried the logs to and fro for Prospero was called into question as he glanced smirkingly and foppishly at the audience, and the ensuing love scene between Miranda and he was concluded not with tortured pangs of love in spite of a father’s wishes but rather with Miranda whooping with joy and Ferdinand swaggering off stage. The theatricality of each part was relished, with jokes chased after at every opportunity. After Prospero had given his blessing to the couple, the show provided by his spirits as a demonstration of his art was comic am-dram, followed by a dance in which Prospero, despite what he had said, was manic in his attempts to stop the young couple from dancing together, working with Ariel to interrupt at every opportunity and keep his daughter away from the young man. Funny, yes, though at odds somewhat with the text.
Ariel was a rather interesting and arresting portrayal. Colin Morgan, he who played the title role in the BBC series Merlin, had a strong contingent of admiring fans in the audience, but in fairness to them it was hard to keep your eyes off him. He swung, leapt and climbed over the set, an airy spirit indeed, and when he spoke, it was in fits and starts, one moment words pouring out, the next silence as he paused to bring up more sounds, conveying the sense that this was not his language, but an affected attempt at being human.
And Caliban? James Garnon appearance was earthy and base, his bare flesh coloured a sandstone red to match the spare set of rocks upon the stage, with scars and open wounds visible upon his limbs and only tattered rags to protect his modesty. A hag-seed indeed, who had the most controversial audience interaction of the night. On the whole, I am unsure how I feel about The Globe’s insistence on ramping up the engagement with its audience; at times it feels like a sort of hyper-authenticity as it panders to the crowd with frequent excursions of the actors among the groundlings. “Isn’t this just like it would have been in Shakespeare’s time?” we say as actors come rushing past us, though I wonder whether the trick isn’t overplayed at times. One nice moment was when Stephano tells Trinculo to stand further off, he of course stepping down among the audience (cue laughter), leaping up again later with a souvenir, a programme for the play, leading to a dumb show in which Stephano, Trinculo and Caliban look in interest and wonder at their own lives mapped out in this little book, and a great punchline when Caliban runs his finger over the synopsis and utters the line “Within this half an hour will he [Prospero] be fast asleep”. Boom boom. But this was not the controversial interaction: Caliban was a spitter – a lot of actors are, such are the hazards of being in the front row – but this was very deliberate, leading up to one moment in particular where, after taking his first sip of drink and freedom, he hocks up very audibly, the audience in front of him cower, and then he forcibly ejects an enormous ball of spit directly onto a member of the audience. And how we cheered and applauded. What does it say about us as an audience that we crave interaction with the actors so much as to commend spitting on the audience, I wonder? But clap and laugh we did, the whole night through. “No harm” insists Prospero, and no harm was done to anyone. Caliban was acknowledged and a grateful reconciliation made with his master, and after Prospero’s final speech, markedly quiet and honest compared to the bold, brash delivery of the rest of the play, there followed the trademark Globe song and dance to finish the night off in keeping with the tone of the production. Jolly, jolly, jolly. Everyone (except perhaps the woman with spit in her hair) had had a good time. This was not a dark and deep production but light, shallow and – what the hell I’ll say it again – fun, a Tempest designed with the audience, not the academic, in mind.