At first sight, this Tempest bears some superficial resemblance to a cut-down production of Cymbeline that Mike Alfreds directed at the Globe in 2001. In that production, six actors played all the parts and the simplicity of the staging brought that most difficult play to life.
This time round, there are just three actors, three dancers and a small choir to tell the story. Director Tim Carroll explains that the use of the two trios of performers emphasise the importance of trinities within the play. In addition, Ariel and Caliban represent two sides of Prospero: the spiritual and the earthy. Such an interpretation, however, leaves little room for exploration of the themes of colonisation and conquest. And the idea of Caliban as some malevolent, dark force is a particularly old-fashioned view - most modern audiences sympathise with his desire for freedom.
Tellingly, in his programme notes, Carroll explains how he was taken by the idea of doing The Tempest as a three-hander because it’s a play he “knows inside out”. The resulting production is really for theatregoers who already know the play extremely well too. There are times when the action is particularly confusing, especially in the scenes involving Sebastion, Antonio, Alonso and Gonzalo where three actors have to play four characters (five when Ariel interrupts the feast). It reminded me of that problem of how many colours are needed in maps to ensure that the same colour is never touching.
It doesn’t help matters that the programme’s synopsis of the plot doesn’t even mention Antonio’s usurpation but implies that Prospero’s dukedom was taken over by the King of Naples.
There are times, however, when the approach works well. The opening scene with Prospero using a chessboard to show the effects of the tempest and its effects on the characters is effective. Prospero’s use of different voices emphasises the confusion and makes it clear from the outset what powerful magical forces are at play. The masque for Miranda and Ferdinand is also excellently done, but then, you’d expect that a production based on words, music and dance would flourish here.
The three actors - Mark Rylance[, [Alex Hassell and Edward Hogg - work hard to manage all the parts between them. And, to their immense credit, the two younger actors are not overshadowed by the Globe’s artistic director (something that hasn’t always been the case at this theatre).
Full marks to The Globe for trying something new. It would have been easy to feed audiences a hackneyed version of Shakespeare knowing the crowds would keep coming. Such commitment to experimentation is something the incoming artistic director would do well to continue. Nevertheless, as mentioned above, this pared-down The Tempest is probably best appreciated by those already in the know. I’m not sure the casual theatregoer would really understand everything that’s going on.