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October 02, 2006

Storm of Ideas: The Tempest - RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

Posted by Lincoln Allison

William Shakespeare's The Tempest
directed by Rupert Goold, Patrick Stewart as Prospero
Royal Shakespeare Company
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
in repertory 28th July - 12th October 2006

The RSC is riding one of its crests at the moment and many of the great range of productions which have constituted its Complete Works festival have received rave reviews and played to full audiences. There was some suggestion that The Tempest, put on by the core company in the main theatre, was not quite up to these standards. Which would have been a pity because Prospero is played by none other than Patrick Stewart whom I used to know as the RSC's cricket captain in the 1970s before he disappeared, in his own words, to be "in some science fiction series". I was always going to see it, whatever the reviews might have said.

Academic writing about the play is bound to focus on colonialism. It's not just a question of Europeans arriving on an island and finding one symbolic native or of Shakespeare in his later years showing an awareness of European explorations on a new and larger scale. In Scene 2 of Act I the said native, Caliban, complains of his loss of sovereignty, of his lack of reward for revealing the assets of his island and of the pain caused by his acquisition of language and a new consciousness. But it is not at all apparent what you can do with this theme when directing the play. Caliban is not the most attractive or interesting, or even coherent, character and the themes of island, magic, shipwreck and revenge have a great deal more theatricality in them than does that of colonialism.

The crucial issue with The Tempest is whether you can create an island and get the audience on there with you. It is not a particularly difficult play to cast (unlike, say, Hamlet or Lear) and it isn't difficult to bring to life ( compared with Richard II or Love's Labour's Lost), but it stands or falls on whether you can create some kind of "island". In that respect it is only like Midsummer Night's Dream which must have the magic and "otherness" (to be tedious) of a forest. Your island or forest should be original, but it must work. We don't need the real trees and the live bunnies which the Victorians used for a forest, but better a blank stage than stainless steel or even a hint of modernism.

Rupert Goold has made his decision and pushed his luck. This is an island, all right, complete with BBC weather reports of gale force 9, videos of heaving seas and the opening scene on the ship seen through the dial of a vast radio. Once beached we have flotsam and jetsam and huts made out of driftwood, with vast skies and glimpses of a serrated bay.

But it is a cold island, where men shiver in the snow, perhaps somewhere between the Outer Hebrides and Iceland in February. Not exactly on the route between Tunis and Naples, but who wants realism? He gets away with it: Nordic magic works just as well in the end as tropical magic and the bleakness of the environment purges the play of any cosiness it might develop. Some references work better than others: Caliban telling how he has revealed the fertility of the island doesn't make much sense, but the castaways marvelling at the dryness of their clothes does. The local spirits resemble Eskimos and at one point they drag on a small whale on a sled which turns out to contain Ariel.

There is a lot of originality in the interpretation of the major roles. Marion Gale's Miranda is odd and wooden in both speech and movement. But this is a girl who has experienced neither other women nor contemporaries so she would be entirely unworldly in these ways. In the "brave new world" scene, when she sees men in numbers for the first time she wants to cuddle them all just as some Down's Syndrome and autistic girls do.

That's a good idea, but the show is almost stolen by Julian Bleach as Ariel. I am used to Ariel flitting gaily and androgynously round the stage as if he (she/it) were Puck under another name. But this is a sinister, masculine Ariel who goes with the scenery; there is nothing gay or cosy about him. His magic is properly dark, his coat long and grey, his movement stealthy and his face an unnatural pallid grey. He owes something to Bela Lugosi and perhaps even more to German horror films of the silent period. The tension between him and Prospero is greater than I have seen it and the release from his bond - in a puff of smoke and fire - more moving.

Joseph Alessi as Stephano and Craig Gazey as Trinculo are rather daft Mancunians - nothing very original in that, but it's good comic acting. Similarly, Skipper Pat brings nothing particularly new to Prospero, but he does have all the assets you need for it - gravitas, a rapport with the audience, a fine voice and the self-belief to take things slowly. He is at his best when dominating the stage including the rare occasions he can address the audience directly and slightly less impressive when showing weakness - as when Ariel stirs his conscience about forgiveness. His bare torso when he removes his magic cloak should serve as an example to us all! How many other 66-year-olds do you know who have a 6-pack? (Perhaps it's a real magic cloak!)

There is one weird piece of casting Warwickshire's own John Light as Caliban. Deformed and hideous he ain't. I last saw him in the rather naff German TV movie Dresden where the gorgeous Felicitas Woll dropped her knickers for him more or less on sight despite his being a wounded RAF pilot on the run so she would be shot just for consorting with him. I was assured that others would have made the same decision.

Caliban is a very odd part, a chained-up savage who speaks in beautiful poetry, and I think the solution to it is to bite the bullet and cast a black actor, thus trading on our unfortunate history of dehumanising racism. I once saw a very effective version of the role by David Troughton, another actor with strong cricket connections. In his case you were led to believe that the acquisition of language and self-knowledge had only allowed him to know that he was an ugly great lump who had no chance with Miranda. But handsome young John Light is on a hiding to nothing, though he puts a lot of effort into snarling, crawling and lunging when he is not being poetic.

And I put a lot of effort into listening to my companions and to the conversations of the rest of the audience. They liked it: the theatre was entirely full and the ovation a good deal longer than average. There were complaints about this or that "gimmick" and, more seriously, that the relationship between Prospero and Miranda lacked any real spark. But nobody thought that this was an overall conception which failed. So I am inclined to rate it as very good. Not great; not the sort of production which has you the following morning reaching for the text in case you forget exactly what it was like, but interesting, effective and original. And it was also not didactic and not afraid of spectacle.

Good to know the home team is still on form.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton.

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