Sunday, 15 August 2010

The Tempest - The Old Vic, Monday 2nd August 2010

The magician Prospero, rightful Duke of Milan, and his daughter, Miranda, have been stranded for twelve years on an island after Prospero's jealous brother Antonio—helped by Alonso, the King of Naples—deposed him and set him adrift with the then three-year-old Miranda. Gonzalo, the King's counsellor, had secretly supplied their boat with plenty of food, water, clothes and the most-prized books from Prospero's library. Possessing magic powers due to his great learning, Prospero is reluctantly served by a spirit, Ariel, whom Prospero had rescued from a tree in which he had been trapped by the witch Sycorax. Her son, Caliban, taught Prospero how to survive on the island, while Prospero . Following Caliban's attempted rape of Miranda, he had been compelled by Prospero to serve as the sorcerer's slave. In slavery, Caliban has come to view Prospero as a usurper and has grown to resent him and his daughter.
The play opens as Prospero, having divined that his brother, Antonio, is on a ship passing close by the island, has raised a tempest which causes the ship to run aground. Also on the ship are King Alonso of Naples, Alonso's brother Sebastian and son Ferdinand, and advisor, Gonzalo. All these passengers are returning from the wedding of Alonso's daughter Claribel with the King of Tunis. Prospero, by his spells, contrives to separate the survivors of the wreck into several groups. Alonso and Ferdinand are separated and believe one another to be dead.
Caliban falls in with Stephano and Trinculo, two drunkards, whom he believes to have come from the moon. They attempt to raise a rebellion against Prospero, which ultimately fails. Prospero works to establish a romantic relationship between Ferdinand and Miranda; the two fall immediately in love, but Prospero worries that "too light winning [may] make the prize light", and compels Ferdinand to become his servant, pretending that he regards him as a spy. In the third subplot, Antonio and Sebastian conspire to kill Alonso and Gonzalo so that Sebastian can become King. They are thwarted by Ariel, at Prospero's command. Ariel appears to Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian as a harpy, reprimanding them for their betrayal of Prospero. Prospero manipulates the course of his enemies' path through the island, drawing them closer and closer to him.

In the conclusion, all the main characters are brought together before Prospero, who forgives Alonso. He also forgives Antonio and Sebastian, but warns them against further betrayal. Ariel is charged to prepare the proper sailing weather to guide Alonso and his entourage (including Prospero and Miranda) back to the Royal fleet and then to Naples, where Ferdinand and Miranda will be married. After discharging this task, Ariel will finally be free. Prospero pardons Caliban, who is sent to prepare Prospero's cell, to which Alonso and his party are invited for a final night before their departure Prospero has resolved to break and bury his wizard's staff and book of magic. In his epilogue, shorn of his magic powers, he invites the audience to set him free from the island with their applause.

Prospero: Stephen Dillane
Ariel: Christian Camargo
Caliban: Ron Cephas Jones
Boatswain: Ross Waiton
Alonso: Jonathan Lincoln Fried
Gonzalo: Alvin Epstein
Sebastian: Richard Hansell
Antonio: Michael Thomas
Miranda: Juliet Rylance
Ferdinand: Edward Bennett
Trinculo: Anthony O’Donnell
Stephano: Thomas Sadowski

I wasn’t quite so sleepy this time round as I was when I saw this company’s production of As You Like It – but honestly, the pace they took it at was enough to cure anyone’s insomnia. Obviously the Director had given them all the instruction “The best way to do Shakespeare so that everyone understands what is going on Is. To. Speak. Very. Very. Slowly. And. Pause. Between. Each. Word”. During the opening scene, everybody thankfully ignored this, but remembered in time for the next one, so that by the (non-existent) interval, I was glancing at my watch every couple of minutes and making strenuous “Get ON with it!” movements with both my hands. There were places where the pace mercifully picked up but the average pace could kindly be described as “stately” or rudely as “bloody slow”. Still, at least most of the cast were audible this time round. Mr. Dillane, playing Prospero, had been roundly criticised by the press for his lack of projection in As You Like It, and for the most part managed to rev this up several notches, until about half an hour before the end when decided to inject a bit of variety into his rather bland performance by playing about with the sound levels:

We. Are. Such. Things. As. Dreams. Are. Made On. And.
Our. Little. Life. Is. Rounded. Off. With. A. Sleep

which made the last act appear like the sound technician was buggering about with his knob (steady!) in his little booth and twisting it left and then right and then back again to keep himself from dropping off through hypnotic speech pattern overload. No such problems from Juliet Rylance who gave her performance by megaphone again – any louder and she could have saved the director of a production some 15 miles away the expense of having a Miranda on stage, merely having to open the theatre doors so that Miss Rylance’s performance could be heard from afar. Alvin Epstein, as Gonzalo, had either switched his throat mike off completely, was making sure that the bats in the rafters got their fill of Shakespeare or was just inaudible.

Rather than present Prospero’s Island with any attempt at realism, the set designer had tried to be tricksy and cute by having no set other than a large, round circle of sand in the middle of the stage. There was a large, shallow trough across the width of the stage at the back, filled with water and enough wooden chairs to start a small furniture store (“Hello? DFS Prospero’s Island branch. How may we help you?”) on which any member of the cast not currently performing had to go and sit and await their next entrance. Pity the poor bugger playing the Boatswain who gets about 10 lines in the first act and then nothing until 2 pages from the very end who had to sit there all night in full view, rather than being able to return to the dressing room, take his sea boots off, catch up with Coronation Street for two hours and have a good scratch. I hope that everyone had been issued with waterproof footwear, or there will be a run on treatment for Foot Rot at Boots in Waterloo Road by the end of the run. The casting director had also seemingly balked at using the full company – when the Goddesses conjured up the Nymphs and Shepherds for the wedding masque, nary a Nymph nor indeed Shepherd responded to their call and so they had to do the best they could with assorted castaways, which made for a rather rum pastoral sequence, especially as a lot of it was accompanied by back-projected old home movies of what I think we were meant to understand to be Miranda's early childhood.

On the subject of rum, this being a tropical island (that's a joke btw), the other inhabitants were extremely odd indeed. Ariel was played as a very fey, palefaced cross between Edward Scissorhands and one of the sparkly vampires from the Twilight series – less Ariel than Emo (still, I suppose we were lucky it wasn't Elmo). Quite why, when commanded to disguise himself as a water sprite, he decided to don a long green sleeveless cocktail dress is beyond me, and I found the characterisation of Caliban somewhat tasteless; yes, OK, have Caliban played by a black actor in order to emphasise his difference from the rest of the characters (and make a political point about slavery), but is it not somewhat crass to then have him “white up” in Caucasian-toned body paint? Other characters seemed to have grabbed their costumes from the nearest hamper marked “Dressing Up” and were representative of no particular era or location. Whether this was making about point about the “timeless” quality of Shakepeare’s play I don’t know but I do know that having no interval makes you very aware of every passing minute when you need to go to the toilet.

What the critics thought:

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