Note: The following review dates from May 2002 and this production's original run at the Roundhouse in London.
The Roundhouse's acoustics can be deadening at the best of times so it was with some trepidation that I approached this performance - there have been too many productions of Shakespeare's tale where the words of the opening scene have been lost in the noise of the eponymous tempest. I'm happy to report then that Michael Boyd's production starts superbly. While the atmosphere crackles with anticipation, there's no howling storm to contend with from the outset.
What Boyd has done brilliantly is bring out the futility of earthly trappings against the force of nature: the King sitting on his throne cannot prevent the tempest. Later on, he's traipsing through the island, in full regalia, with attendant holding his train, almost unable to comprehend his impotence. And of course, Stephano and Trinculo are also distracted by the material symbols of power.
Boyd draws a parallel with the bosun using his whistle to marshal the mariners, as the courtiers stand uselessly by, and Ariel commanding the forces of nature with the same whistle, as the courtiers are revealed to be helpless on the island. But Prospero himself also learns that his power is illusory and in this production, as in many, there's a voyage of discovery for the master manipulator.
The production holds some outstanding moments. The banquet scene is brilliantly portrayed as Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian brawl bestially for the scraps of food - royal personages quickly reduced to savages (making Sebastian's slur about Alonso's daughter's marriage to an African particularly ironic). Best of all is Prospero's final farewell to Ariel: a truly tender moment in a truly memorable production.
In such a clear and stimulating presentation, excellent performances abound, not least Malcolm Storry's authoritative Prospero, full of rage and vindictiveness at first, but ultimately tamed. There's also a truly enchanting Ariel in Kananu Kirimi, a powerful Caliban from Geff Francis, a particularly villainous Antonio in Brian Protheroe and, the one I most especially liked, an earthy and passionate Miranda from Sirine Saba.
Full marks too for Tom Piper's design. While it's not as audacious as the Almeida's production of a couple of years ago, it uses every inch of the Roundhouse space - upwards as well, with some superb aerial choreography, courtesy of Gavin Marshall.
There has been a lot of talk about the decline of the RSC. This production shows that when the company is at its best, nobody can do Shakespeare better. And for all the worries about the Roundhouse acoustics, every word here could be heard. It's a pity something can't be done about the uncomfortable seats.