Anyone having preconceived ideas about the location of Prospero's magic island should forget them before going to see this latest RSC production of the play, directed by Rupert Goold.
Hints that we might not be going to visit the more usual Mediterranean island were contained in the map on the curtain hiding the stage before the show, which actually depicted the Arctic, and, when we eventually saw Prospero's home, it was a weather-beaten log cabin situated amidst the seemingly limitless frozen wastes of Giles Cadle's superb set - a brilliant exercise in perspective.
Purists may cringe in horror, or pedants complain that a ship journeying from Africa to Italy is unlikely to end up in the Bering Strait, but there is no need to. The unusual location did no disservice whatsoever to the play – indeed in some respects it cast a new and fascinating light on it – and we were, after all, seeing not only a magic island but also a storm that, conjured up as it was by Ariel at Prospero's bidding, could well have had unusual effects!
Even before this truly unique setting for the piece was revealed, we had seen as exciting a version of the storm scene as I have witnessed in nine productions. Painted on the curtain along with the map was a large ship's radio, and the show began with a shipping forecast (in true BBC style) which reported the approaching storm. And we scarcely had time to marvel at the dazzling – and greatly daring – ingenuity of this before the radio's speaker was transformed into the porthole of the ship, revealing the mariners being tossed around on the bridge and the invasions of the frightened passengers, who were in evening dress.
There was much more to this production, though, than a stunning design and an exciting staging, for these were combined with fine performances. Mariah Gale gave Miranda exactly the combination of innocence and gawkiness you would expect in a girl of her age who had been brought up in isolation from the world, Ken Bones was as chilling and unrepentant an Antonio as you will ever see and Finbar Lynch's Alonso was so engrossed by his grief over the apparent loss of Ferdinand that he spent much of the play oblivious both to what was happening around him and the extreme harshness of his environment.
The most outstanding portrayals, however, were those of Julian Bleach, as a white-faced Gothic spirit, clothed in black, who might well have come from the underworld rather than the air above and of whom even Prospero was at times a little afraid, and Patrick Stewart as Prospero himself, whose arduous exile seemed to have caused him to become so eaten up by his desire for revenge that, after he had achieved it, he seemed to lose all his self-belief and who, after he had spoken the play's closing words, still held us in thrall with an almost unbearably long, and silent, appeal for our support.
- Janet Polson
22 Mar 07
Either I'm getting the hang of Shakespeare or this is an exceptionally clear and accessible production of The Tempest, ideal for the large number of school parties who gave this a rapturous reception at yesterday's matinee. Much of the attention has gone to the decision to stage this on an icy wasteland rather than a Mediterranean island. In fact there aren't too many clashes with the text and the design fits well with Rupert Goold's imaginative direction. The RSC ensemble are in their usual superb form and Patrick Stewart seems happy to be part of a company performance, although Prospero's closing speech proves that he is an exceptional interpreter of Shakespeare's verse. Unfortunately an otherwise excellent production was spoilt by the most excruciatingly uncomfortable seats I have ever had the misfortune to endure; anyone over five feet tall or with back problems should avoid the Novello like the plague until Cameron MacKintosh does something about these ergonomic death traps. David Baxter (14.3.07) - David Baxter
15 Mar 07
Going to a Shakespeare play is sometimes less than stimulating: you usually know what's coming. Going to a RSC production of a Shakespeare play is often rewardingly comfortable: elements of their 'house' style are always there.
This production is different.
Amazingly imaginative, constantly stimulating, delightfully inventive -- and good performances to boot. The matinee I attended had large numbers of young people present who laughed (and nearly always at the right places) and were completely engaged, as was I. Heartily recommended. - Lorna Dodd
07 Mar 07
I was there when, amid tingling excitement and expectation, Zoe Wanamaker brought down her staff with a resounding thump to the stage floor of the newly opened Globe Theatre and cried: “O for a muse of fire ...” to launch Henry V. I laughed with the Groundlings when Mark Rylance led his fellow actors through a delightful Twelfth Night. I marvelled at Antony Cher’s Macbeth. I was entranced by Michael Gambon’s Henry IV Parts One and Two. I was absorbed by Kevin Spacey’s Richard II. My jaw dropped at Adrian Lester’s Hamlet. I delighted in As You Like It with Sienna Miller and Helen McCrory and I was thrilled by the physical spectacle of last season’s Titus Andronicus at the Globe with Douglas Hodge.
These are just some of the Shakespearean highlights that have offered high rewards over the past few years. And what, I wondered, would the RSC deliver with The Tempest, an obviously difficult play to stage considering the demands for storms at sea, magical events and a major character, Ariel, who is of the spirit world and invisible to all but Prospero? The answer is: an abysmal mess.
Certainly, the opening scenes of the victims in their storm-tossed ship were very effectively presented - almost like being in a cinema, though I would wager that, in all the uproar, few in the audience could have made out many of the words. This gave way to the next scene of Patrick Stewart’s Prospero standing before a smoking brazier and making a demented wailing noise as though he had stomach pains from something cooked in its flames. He was wearing the most ludicrous outfit - his magic cloak - formed from the remains of some dead, unidentifiable animal. Thankfully, he soon discarded it, hanging it up on a wall hook, like some old raincoat.
He is joined by Miranda, played, it says in my programme, by Marian Gale, though I could not recognise her from the programme photo. This Miranda is a total wimp with a high-pitched voice and a tendency to throw off the odd line rapidly with a petulant stamp of her foot, evoking inappropriate laughter from sections of the audience. Her performance put me in mind of a school play where you feel like groaning at what is going on before you, but hasten to remind yourself that the little darlings are doing their best.
She is put to sleep by Prospero (thankfully, but only temporarily), heralding the entrance of Ariel, created by Shakespeare as a spirit of the air, wild and free, untainted by any form of earthiness or earth-bound humanity. However, what emerges on the stage, laughably from the brazier of all places, is a creature very much akin to the Monster portrayed by Boris Karloff in Frankenstein. Ashen-faced, hair standing on end, staring eyes and a plodding gait, only the bolt through the neck is missing. Er, excuse me, isn’t Ariel supposed to be a light and nimble spirit of the air?
We are dragged on to the point where Ferdinand, played by Nick Court, declares his undying love and passion for Miranda. A more total lack of chemistry between two supposed lovers is hard to imagine. She stands there like a fashion disaster, dressed in some bizarre outfit complete with boot-style trainers, resembling a displaced fraulein from the Sound of Music, and listens as the declarartion is presented to her with all the emotion and passion of someone reading a Gordon Brown speech.
The scenes with Trinculo, Stephano and Caliban are effec tive and amusing. Then comes the banquet scene. This is how Shakespeare saw it: the King and his followers, weary, footsore and very hungry, are suddenly and miraculously presented with a mouth-watering banquet, created by Prospero’s magic. In this production, a huge, grey, lump of plastic, presumably supposed to be a fish, or dolphin, but looking more like a giant slug, is dragged across the stage on a sledge and abandoned before the amazed royal party. How they could even contemplate tucking in to this grisly object is hard to imagine, but they start to do so. Immediately, Boris - er, sorry, Ariel, springs through a flapin the carcass and gives an astonishing Edward Scissorhands impression, berating the stupefied onlookers for their treatment of Prospero.
I can’t tell you how the play progressed after that because, thankfully, the interval came, and I was able to make a grateful escape from the theatre. I was sorry I could not stay to watch Patrick Stewart deliver the “Our revels now are ended” speech and Prospero’s farewell to his art at the end. Stewart is an adequate performer and, I am sure, would have offered a worthwhile performance. But the laughable and amateurish production going on around him was, like the giant slug, too much to stomach. On top of which, the gross discomfort of my expensive stalls seat at the Novello Theatre was such that a further hour or so of physical as well as mental torment was simply too much to contemplate.
This was the first time I had ever walked out from a Shakespeare production and was possibly my worst-ever evening at a theatre. And, to add salt to the wounds, I had to pay Livingstone’s £8 I Hate Cars Tax just to get there.
Whatsonstage.com - Discount London theatre tickets, theatre news and reviews, Theatre videos, Theatre discussion, National Theatre Listings. Covering London's West End, all of Theatreland and all UK theatre. The best
for London Theatre Ticket Discounts.