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
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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: