Reviews Stratford-upon-Avon Published 27 April 2012

The Tempest

Royal Shakespeare Theatre ⋄ 30th March - 19th May, and 13th July - 7th October 2012

A thrust stage of which the Bard would’ve approved.

Neil Dowden

In the week of the Bard’s birthday, the World Shakespeare Festival has kicked off in London and Stratford. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s ‘shipwreck trilogy’ of The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night and The Tempest explores different treatments of the overlapping themes of family separation and reunion on magical islands, where the destructive power of the sea is countered by redemptive powers of healing, in plays from the early, middle and late parts of Shakespeare’s career.

David Farr’s interesting but flawed modern-dress production of The Tempest offers an unconventional interpretation of what used to be romantically seen as Shakespeare’s elegiac farewell to theatre. At forty years old, Jonathan Slinger is much younger than most Prosperos, and after 12 years’ enforced exile he is chomping at the bit for revenge on those who deposed him as Duke of Milan and eager to get back into the fray of court life, rather than looking for quiet retirement. This is not the usual scholarly magician controlling events with sage-like calm, but a fiery man who cannot keep his own tempestuous moods under control, as he veers unpredictably from vengeful anger to gentle generosity.

Wielding a big stick more like a weapon than a wand, this tyrannical Prospero rules his island with a rod of iron, demanding submission not only from his slave Caliban and ‘airy sprite’ Ariel, but also his daughter Miranda. It seems that at the outset by conjuring up the tempest to shipwreck his enemies his plan is to vent his anger on them once they are in his power, rather than teach them the error of their ways, and it is only during the course of the drama that he softens and decides to forgive them, choosing reconciliation over punishment.

The production’s opening sea-storm is distinctly underwhelming, with the ship’s passengers making stylized synchronized movements and their voices muffled within a perspex box, and despite projections of huge waves there is little sense of a real danger of drowning. It seems to be more a product of Prospero’s mind, confirmed when afterwards he himself steps out of the box. But once the conflict on the island begins the dramatic impact increases, with (the oddly female) Sebastian’s plot to kill brother Alonso, King of Naples, echoing Antonio’s overthrowing of Prospero, while Stephano and Trinculo’s drunkenly stumbling efforts at taking over the island’s governance are executed with comic glee. The masque scenes are also well done, with magical sleight of hand.

Farr manipulates the action with consummate skill though by the end we do not feel we have come through a spiritual journey. Jon Bausor’s impressive design features a hulking wreck in the background with the stage made of splintered planks (from beneath which performers emerge) and mysteriously sculpted rocks, while an ingeniously mirrored cube represents Prospero’s cell. Adem Ilhan’s eerily chiming music adds much to the otherworldly atmosphere of an ‘isle full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs’.

Slinger is a passionate, restless Prospero, projecting inner conflict rather than mystical knowledge, speaking the verse powerfully even if he overdoes the shouting a bit. However, it is difficult to believe in his paternal relations with Emily Taaffe’s sweetly naïve and ardent Miranda does not really work. More successful is his touching master/servant relationship with Sandy Grierson’s similarly besuited, graceful Ariel, longing for freedom but reluctant to leave. Amer Hlehel’s Caliban is a nicely contrasting corporeal presence but there is not enough threat in his rebellious resentment.

Overall, the production makes good use of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s reconfigured thrust stage, setting up a dynamic immediacy with the audience of which Shakespeare himself would surely approve.

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Neil Dowden

Neil's day job is working as a freelance editor for book publishers such as HarperCollins, Penguin, Faber and British Film Institute Publishing, but as a night person he prefers reviewing for Exeunt. He has also written features on the theatre and reviewed films, concerts, albums, opera, dance, exhibitions, books and restaurants for various newspapers and magazines, including The Stage and What's On in London, as well as contributing to a couple of books on 20th-century drama and writing a short tourist guide to London for Visit Britain. He insists he is not a playwright manqué but was born to be a critic and just likes sticking a knife into luvvies. In fact, as a boy he wanted to become a professional footballer, but claims there were no talent scouts where he then lived on the South Wales coast, and so has had to settle for playing Sunday league for a dodgy south London team. Apart from the arts and sport, his other main interest is travel, and he is never happier than when up a mountain, though Everest Base Camp is the highest he has been so far. He believes he has not yet reached his peak.

The Tempest Show Info


Directed by David Farr

Cast includes Ankur Bahl, Sarah Belcher, Amie Burns Walker, Kirsty Bushell, Nicholas Day, Sandy Grierson, Stephen Hagan, Felix Hayes, Amer Hlehel, Solomon Israel, Jan Knightley, Bruce Mackinnon, Jonathan Mcguinness, Kevin Mcmonagle, Cecilia Noble, Jonathan Slinger, Emily Taaffe, Sargon Yelda.

Link http://www.rsc.org.uk

Running Time 2 hrs 35 minutes

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