Most modern productions of this play tend to see it as either a text about colonialism or as a treatise on nature and illusion. Rupert Goold’s dark production seems to come from another place altogether. His Paradise Lost last year suggested that here was a startlingly original director and here, together with designer Giles Cadle, he’s a created a strange and unsettling world: half gothic nightmare and half Nordic myth.
The opening storm scene is one of the best I’ve seen - I was almost feeling seasick myself – and we’re quickly transported not to a tropical island but to a frozen wasteland (and let’s skip over how a ship sailing from Tunis to Naples appears to have ended up in the Bering Sea).
We first see Patrick Stewart’s Prospero as a shamanic figure calling up the storm, but it’s soon apparent this is no tyrannical figure. In one instance, here he’s more pedagogic: his explanation to Miranda of who she is seems more like a school lesson. He tenderly prepares Miranda for her first meeting with Ferdinand by cleaning her face, like a doting mother. And there’s a genuine poignancy at the close, Stewart almost choking back a sob on “drown my book”.
The most compelling feature of the production, however, is Julian Bleach’s astonishing Ariel. Looking like a cross between Johnny Rotten and Gormenghast’s Steerpike, he presents himself as a much more commanding spirit than is usual – indeed they are moments in his scenes with Prospero where we’re not quite sure who is the master and who the servant – quite telling in a play where the notion of power is illusory.
There’s an equally good performance from Mariah Gale as a gauche Miranda, the first time I’ve ever seen an actor treat the character for what she is: an awkward and naïve 15-year-old. There’s a touching simplicity about the way that she deals with the sudden discovery of a world beyond her island.
This is an imaginative, visually stunning, provocative production but there are some disappointments: the granting of Ariel’s freedom seems almost an afterthought, the Stephano/Trinculo interludes left me completely cold, and theirs and Caliban’s putative revolt seemed to belong to another play altogether. But the plusses far outweigh the minuses: this is a Tempest like no other.
- Maxwell Cooter
Note: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from August 2006 and this production's original run at the RSC.
There’s not much warmth in The Tempest - an idea at the chilly heart of director Rupert Goold's highly idiosyncratic production which is apparently located somewhere in the Artic Circle.
When the surly magus, having abated the storm he has raised, returns back inside his log cabin clad in shamanic furs, snow falling through the darkness, I half expected him to turn and cry: "And it ain't a night fit for neither man nor beast", pace W C Fields in That Fatal Glass of Beer.
Happily, while this production is undoubtedly odd - its relocation belies much of the descriptive references and could irk the more literal-minded - it is fresh, often brilliantly inventive visually, and features in Patrick Stewart a Prospero fully capable of doing justice to the Bard's late verse.
But it is Julian Bleach's brilliant re-imagining of Ariel which is destined to live longest in the mind. He is no "delicate" spirit of light and grace, but a malignant thing, whose spectral form stalks the stage like Nosterferatu and who emerges menacingly from the most unexpected of places.
They key idea informing Goold's production seems to be that Prospero, in making an island of himself through single-minded devotion to his studies and revenge, has created a world which mirrors himself in its unforgiving iciness. It is only at the end by embracing forgiveness and acknowledging Caliban's darkness to be his that he is able to enter fully into humanity.
Goold's Tempest teems with ideas and they can work to pull the play in different directions, creating a gallimaufry of individual scenes, rather than a consistent whole. But the strange sounds - and sights - which fill the production, offer delight.