Shakespeare’s last great play, The Tempest, explores the relationship between Art and Nature. This touring production, in which Richard Briers adds Prospero to his impressive portfolio of Shakespeare’s old men, has strengths and weaknesses but is, on balance, worth seeing.
Whilst the current RSC production of this play relies overmuch on magic effects and elaborate stage machinery, this one depends simply on the acting. That’s as it should be, but unfortunately for Patrick Mason, the skill of these actors in his production of The Tempest is variable. While most of the cast put in workmanlike performances and some are outstandingly good, two of the major roles are ill-served.
Miranda is a simple, ingenuous, 15-year-old girl raised alone by her father from the age of three on a deserted island. She should be natural and unaffected, innocent of all society. Sounding and moving like the product of a top finishing school for young ladies, Madeleine Worrall enunciates her words very clearly, but Miranda needs more than immaculate elocution to persuade us that she is an innocent child of nature.
If Miranda is innocent Nature, Caliban is Nature in its savage and threatening mode, but Rory Kinnear plays him like an ineffective bolshie student, more self-pitying than aggressive, with never a hint of menace. If Worrall is ten years too old for Miranda, Kinnear is at least ten years too young for Caliban and one feels sorry for him being so cruelly miscast.
So the conflict between Nature and Prospero’s Art is really no contest at all. This is reflected in Francis O’Connor’s design for the deserted but verdant island - a set of symmetrical blue shining tiles with a steel ladder and platform. The setting is beautiful and works well, but it’s entirely man’s artifice, not the produce of nature. The balance of the play is distorted.
Yet this production has many riches as well. One is the master-class in Shakespearean comedy given by Darren Tunstall as Trinculo – a small role, but worth the ticket money on its own. Briars, in non-comic mode, makes a fine Prospero. Angry, gentle, tired, commanding – he never fails to convince and to move. The rescue of this major actor from a life-sentence in TV sit-com is one thing for which the nation should thank Kenneth Branagh.
If Briars sometimes touches greatness as Prospero, then Ben Silverstone achieves it consistently as Ariel in the commanding performance of this production. Tremulous, subservient, eager, fey, mysterious, suffering, longing … he manages to invest the spirit of the air with a myriad of characteristics which somehow coalesce. Virtually single-handed he creates the magical island for the audience. It’s little wonder that Briars is at his best in the Prospero-Ariel scenes, which are as good an evocation of Shakespeare’s world as you will see anywhere at the moment.
- Robert Hole (reviewed at Plymouth’s Theatre Royal)