Shakespeare’s ‘Rough Magic’

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After the resounding magical success of the Little Angel Theatre’s Venus and Adonis puppet play for the R.S.C.’s Complete Works Festival in 2006, I was expecting an enchanted, toy-box-style theatre with a magical island entirely populated by puppets. There was no ‘on-stage’ toy theatre and eight actual actors were involved. But the result was still magical.

This was the third version of The Tempest I’ve seen in a week. There were Declan Donellan’s Russian version (great ensemble playing by a cast rooted in the story and charaterisation) and Julie Taymor’s on the whole disastrous film which took the play far too seriously and literally (a big disappointment after her extraordinary Titus, more than a decade ago).

The Little Angel Theatre’s The Tempest, presented by the R.S.C. in The Swan Theatre, is a success on several levels. With a young audience in mind, it trimmed the play to around an hour and fifteen minutes (without an interval).

The production brought a splendid use of visual and interpretative economy to bear on the text. Prospero used a chess board to help tell Miranda the story of his exile as rightful Duke of Milan; the same chess set was used later when she is discovered playing a game with Ferdinand. The hull of the apparently wrecked boat, present on stage throughout, was suggestive of cliffs and of Prospero’s cave at various points. The scene in which Trinculo hides from the impending storm under Caliban’s gaberdine (2. 2) only to be gradually discovered a few moments by Stefano was pure pantomime and reminded me how economical Shakespeare’s most truly comic effects can be. Later, the garments which Trinculo and Stefano find (4. 1.) consisted of two beautiful ball-gowns, which came alluringly to life as puppets and were then suddenly inverted to reveal the heads of two monstrous dogs, chasing their erstwhile dancing partners Trinculo and Stefano off-stage. And the cast was made up of only seven actors, who doubled as characters in the play and puppeteers.

Caliban and Ariel were both puppets, the former earthy and dragon-like, the latter a slight, rod-operated puppet, always flying just beyond Prospero’s reach, ‘Why, that’s my dainty Ariel’ (5. 1. 97). I was again delighted at how expressive puppets can be. Part of their expressiveness relies on voice as well as the highly skilled movement and manipulation. The words have to be abundantly clear in order for each moment to be understood and, to this end, the requirements on the actors’ (or puppeteers’) voices were more like those for audio Shakespeare. The result was some of the finest verse-speaking I’ve heard in ages.

I was pleased to see David Fielder’s Prospero. He was a memorable Jacques in Gregory Thompson’s 2003 R.S.C. As You Like It. Fielder spoke the lines with great conviction and seemed visibly to be moved himself by some of the poetry. His portrayal was helped, too, by the unashamed emphasis on magic for the young audience. There was a sprightly and strong Miranda from Anneika Rose, and the production’s own interpolated, original songs helped to underscore the developing love between her and Ferdinand. Strange, but never before had I noticed that it is Miranda who proposes to Ferdinand (3. 1. 83), so fresh and true did it all seem.

A magical show, bristling with compelling insights and a light, comic touch.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson

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