Year of Shakespeare: The Tempest

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This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


The Tempest, The Royal Shakespeare Company, directed by David Farr, 20 April 2012 at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

By Paul Edmondson

For a while I was worried that we were only going to hear the storm and the ship splitting on Miranda’s radio. But the shipwreck, when it happened, was instead contained in a cube upstage left. This held about six people comfortably and could be lit so as to be transparent from within, or with its mirror-like doors reflecting the main-stage action back to the audience. The opening storm was oddly cut off from the rest of the main playing space. The effect of this was to make the tempest small and understated. Although the lines were shouted from within the cube, they were not really clear enough.

But the stage around the outside of the cube, the set-design for Prospero’s island, was already evoking a ruinous civilisation. Lines from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ spring to mind:

‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert… Near them on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things’

There were a headless sphinx upstage right, a foot, part of a body, and a crown downstage centre (or was it a tortoise?). Were these the remnants of a statue of Sycorax (as Dame Janet Suzman suggested to me afterwards)? The production didn’t make it clear. Prospero and Miranda lived among these wrecks and ruins; characters moved around them, took their rest on them. Were we to feel any pity for this lost civilisation, to suffer with those who had suffered? The production didn’t make it clear. The stage was broken up around its edges and there were a few potholes in its flooring. The colour palate was an all-pervading grey, both among the stones and in many of the costumes. Why was it monotone? The production didn’t make it clear. What country, friends, is this? You need to read the designer’s Jon Bausor’s notes in the programme to understand more. There he explains that the stones are a broken statue of Setebos ‘the female god that celebrated womanhood and sexuality’ destroyed by Prospero, and that the director ‘wanted a prison-camp-like feel to this island.’ Bausor is also designing the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games.

Jonathan Slinger’s Prospero spoke with Ozymandias’s ‘wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command.’ He was petulant, snappy, angry and impatient, commanding and authoritative, quick to chide and slow to bless. It was easy to imagine this Prospero being tyrannical and ruling with an ordinary iron rod, rather than a magical staff. A staff he did wield, but it was not overtly magical, not even roughly so. His line ‘lie there, my art’ (1.1.25) was spoken as he tapped the door of the cube. The cube was where any magic emanated, a magician’s cupboard, a Pandora’s box. The aggression Slinger brought to the role defamiliarised many of the lines. Certainly it made his need to tell Miranda the story of her life deeply felt.

When Sandy Grierson’s Ariel entered he looked like Prospero’s twin. They wore the same grey, shabby suits, as did Amer Hlehel’s non-monstrous Caliban (only his was much dirtier and more ragged). The director was clearly interested in doubleness and twinning, part of the attempt to evoke something of a ‘shipwreck trilogy’ across three plays from the early, mid and late parts of Shakespeare’s career which share similar themes. Ariel had changed his costume by his next appearance, a metallic grey overall with a Renaissance-style ruff. He also multiplied. Several Ariel’s appeared from the cube to perform Adem Ihlan’s haunting and dissonant setting of ‘Come unto these yellow sands.’ Towards the end of 1.2 three Calibans made a predatory and threatening approach to the desk at which Miranda was sitting.

As with Farr’s production of Twelfth Night, or what you will (cross-cast and in repertory with The Tempest) there was no attempt to distinguish between social rank. Alonso wore a tokenistic crown. In his Neapolitan court he was surrounded by anonymous looking men in suits and one corporately dressed woman, Kirsty Bushell as Sebastian (the reason why he was played by a woman was not made clear). There was nothing remotely Ducal about Prospero, nothing royal about ‘admired Miranda’, nothing princely about Ferdinand. Not to depict social rank can obfuscate power-struggles and political aspirations, but understatement was a watchword of this production.

Felix Hayes’s Trinculo and Bruce McKinnon’s Stephano brought (and revelled in) welcome episodes of comedy. Hayes’s wide-eyed naïveity (‘I can swim like a duck, I’ll be sworn’, 2.2.126-8) was accompanied by light, child-like gestures. There were not many moments when the actors addressed the audience directly. Trinculo did, occasionally, and gave his lines about England, special resonance: ‘when they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian’ (2.2.31-3). Stefano was wonderfully drunk and I had never before seen him ignore Caliban’s splendidly lyrical lines and vision about the isle being full of noises (3.2.138-146). Amer Hlehel’s Caliban spoke English as a second language, a constant reminder that his speech as well as his island had been colonized by Prospero.

Two moments stood out as being magical, as belonging to the realm of fairy-story: Ariel’s appearance as the harpy over the banquet (3.3.) and the wedding masque in which Iris, Ceres, and Juno appeared wearing elaborate and decadent Jacobean costumes. Ariel controlled their movements throughout. His gestures determined theirs, just as we’d seen him similarly control Ferdinand on his first appearance.

Slinger brought resentment rather than regret or tenderness to Prospero’s famous lines about ‘our little life / Is rounded with a sleep’ (4.1.157-8). There was certainly an emotional and psychological climax as Prospero set Ariel free and forgave those around him, as well as himself.

Whilst there was emphasis on a clear-sighted narrative and emotional trajectory, Farr’s production, overall, rather robbed the rainbow of its mystery. I wanted to wave Prospero’s magical staff and create a much greater sense of wonder (and colour) rather than rational greyness.


Audience Reactions from Paul Edmondson and Paul Prescott


To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.


Want to know what other audience members thought about this production? Look below to find out:

Here’s audience member and actor Andrew Venning’s thoughts on this interpretation:

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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
  • bprottey

    Although The Tempest as a text is one of my least favourite of Shakespeare’s plays, this performance went some way to changing my mind. I thought the character doubling of Prospero and Ariel was ingenious and made me consider their relationship as more reciprocal and two-sided, which was interesting. Also, the comedic acting of Felix Hayes and Bruce Mackinnon was superb.

    I did, however, have some doubts about the choice of staging. Whilst the barren grey rocks and holes allowed great potential for character entrances, I agree with the reviewers opinion that some of the magic was lost in this interpretation. The two stand out special effect moments were too infrequent and I would have liked the RSC to have utilised their capacity for spectacular stage effects to a greater extent.

  • Anonymous

    even more intriguing. thank you , the tension mounts … fair stand the wind for Friday

  • Paul Edmondson

    Thanks, Erin. Love the comparison with Chekhov! The Prospero and Ariel relationship was the key one in this production, I think. Love and forgiveness are pervasive through this play, aren’t they? I’d have liked as strong an atmosphere among the Neapolitan courtiers as we had in Prospero’s household.

  • Paul Edmondson

    Well, he certainly has his moments as Prospero, and his epilogue is powerfully delivered. I wonder if your applause will the be first to set him free?

  • Paul Edmondson

    Thanks, Rory. It’s always a good thought that every single night at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre it will be someone’s first ever play, someone’s first ever Shakespeare play, or someone’s first time seeing that particular play.

  • Anonymous

    Interesting Paul,I’m really looking forward to seeing this on Friday.
    Despite your obvious disappointment in the lack of ‘magic’ /trickery, for me the magic always lies in Jonathan Slinger, who never once has failed to have me in thrall – he has a second sight into the text enough for me…:-)

  • Oops, that comment below should have been from me (Erin)! Still getting the hang of the comment board 🙂

  • Hi Paul, thanks for your thoughtful review. I like the links you make with Ozymandius – raises interesting questions not only about the civilization that preceded Prospero and Miranda’s arrival, but also about what Prospero’s own legacy will be. I agree that the production was rather stark and that the prevailing tone was one of resentment. The opening scenes in particular – with Prospero, Miranda, Ariel, and Caliban all arguing with one another – reminded me of the claustrophobia and frustration that you get in something like Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. 

    Prospero came across to me as a very bitter and irritable man, but I will say that this characterization allowed for some interesting revelations towards the end of the production. One thing that I think will stay with me is the way in which this Prospero and Ariel handled the ‘I would, were I human’ line. Usually I find that this line intensifies my focus on Ariel – what is this creature that I’ve been watching all this time, if not human? If he doesn’t feel, how/why does he desire his freedom? In this production though the line seemed to have more to do with Prospero’s humanity than Ariel’s – the night I was there Ariel delivered it almost as a way of backpedaling out of a tricky situation – he did feel for the prisoners, but he was wary of angering Prospero by suggesting that he was being unreasonable or unfeeling. Slinger’s reaction to this line really moved me – his delivery of ‘And mine shall’ seemed like the turning point, when his Prospero finally decided to give up his anger and embrace forgiveness.

    Overall I would have liked something at once more magical and more political, but I’m grateful for moments like the one above that made me rethink my understanding of what could be happening in Shakespeare’s text.

  • Rory Keegan

    Well said. The cube made me cross from the start. Unless you’d mugged up in advance, you’d have no idea what was being said from within it. Overall a lack of energy and wonder – with the exception, as you say, of the dangling harpy. Felt sad for those seeing the play for the first time – and wished they’d seen instead the recent puppet version, or the magnificent South African production featuring Anthony Sher as Prospero. 

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