REVIEW: The Tempest, Royal Shakespeare Theatre
Steve Sutherland reviews The Tempest, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, until 4th March
No, no… come back! Not the play. The play’s spiffing.
No, I’m referring to the trash that’s spread all over the stage and, more to the point, all that’s been said and written about it. Mainly, I suspect, because the programme makes such a meal of it, this splendid production has already been saddled with the thematic burden of climate change and mankind’s pathetic complicity in it. And, yes, there is a slither of truth in that. But the main problem with such a narrow interpretation is that it plays into the hands of the outraged traditionalists who endlessly let us know that they are fed up to the back teeth with recent gimmicky productions where the RSC seemed mainly intent on dragging the Bard kicking and screaming towards contemporary relevance no matter how daft or tenuous.
Fact is, Shakespeare can speak for himself on universal and eternal matters without any help from over-zealous directors thanks very much. He’s been doing it for centuries. And, OK, yes, there is a neat element of recycling involved in the litter-picking chores bestowed upon Ferdinand and Tom Piper’s stunning junkyard set does beautifully illustrate the environmental point but it would be a tawdry sin if that were to be allowed to overshadow this production’s real revelatory innovation.
Alex Kingston is Prospero and it’s the most effective theatrical gender swap I’ve ever witnessed. Where most of my past Prosperos were played by blokes like macho wizards with Machiavellian designs, pulling strings as if the rest of the cast were mere puppets, their main motivation revenge, Kingston plays the Duke maternally, wracked with worry, her main concerns safety and survival. The way Elizabeth Freestone has directed her, Kingtson has three children - her dangerously naive and typically argumentative teen daughter Miranda, her ambitious servant spirit Ariel and the one who went wrong, Caliban. There is a deep understanding of the pressures of parenthood in Kingston’s performance which finds more emotional truth and human sense in Prospero than any of her predecessors. She is acutely anxious whenever Ariel performs a task for her, and constantly seeks reassurance that all has been carried out to the letter. She tortures herself over her failure to foster a loving relationship with Caliban and it’s clearly evident that everything she is doing with her magic is not to satisfy any lust for a return to her rightful role as ruler but to ensure that Miranda achieves a happy future. A lioness with her cubs, if you will.
I’ve noticed a whiff of criticism around the muddle of pronouns engendered by Kingston’s cross-casting - he’s should be she’s and all that - but really such pedantry dissolves to nothing in the face of Kingston’s forceful portrayal. She’s not alone in her excellence. Jessica Rhodes and Joseph Payne make a lovely Miranda and Ferdinand, their wonderstruck courtship tenderly played, understated, cute even as they improvise together at a battered piano. Heledd Wynn’s Ariel is a fascinating creature, weird and unworldly yet familiarly frustrated as a teen looking to sever the apron strings. Whether dark or delighted in the magical doings, the overriding impression you take home with you is how very much Wynn wants away and free and how very much Kingston will miss them.
Tommy Sim’aan’s Caliban is great too, snivelling and growling, the rightful duke of the isle ironically supplanted by Prospero just as she was usurped out of Milan.
He’s a little too handsome for my liking, not the grotesque tortoise he’s constantly called, and I could do with a little more Elephant Man and a little less Spartacus.
The shipwrecked bunch are fun, especially Jamie Ballard’s Antonio, Prospero’s greedy brother who can’t kick his addiction to the aquisition of power. But best of all are Stephano, the drunken butler, an endearing slob with delusions of grandeur for whom Simon Startin appears to channel no more magnificent a sot as Barry Humphries’ Sir Les Patterson.
His stupid sidekick, Cath Whitefield’s’s Trinculo is also a ditsy delight and the pair darn nearly hijack the whole show even though their comic interludes are theoretically unnecessary.
If you are the sort of person who demands a reason for such scenes to survive an edit, you only need mark the rest of the cast’s reaction as the pair stagger into view. All they want to know is where the hell they got the wine, which struck a chord with this reviewer who can get a little angsty if there’s not a bottle of Chardonnay in the fridge.
Kingston, again, owns the ending. Having hung up her magical cloak, released Ariel and dispensed with her powers, she is more trepidatious than victorious, hoping rather than convinced that she has ensured her desired outcome.
And I’m not sure if anyone else noticed but if you really want this performance to have a theme, try this on for size. Among the many famous speeches the play delivers, Caliban sneaks this in: “You taught me language; and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you/ For learning me your language!”
The Tempest is reputed to be one of Shakespeare’s final plays and as Sim’aan’s Caliban is freed by Prospero to regain his isle and as Wynn’s Ariel ascends liberated to the heavens they both break into their own alien languages. So, is this the director’s sly comment on cultural imperialism? Is it a cheeky farewell on behalf of Shakespeare to this playwriting business? Is it actually something and nothing? Your guess is as good as mine but it’s exactly what I look for in theatre - food for thought.
The Tempest is the RSC at the very top of its game. Go see.
'The best thing the RSC have done in ages'
Year 12 Playbox members give their view of The Tempest
"This is definitely the best thing the RSC have done in ages. They really played up the humour. All the cast were great, but Ferdinand (Joseph Payne) stood out, especially the physical comedy when he was under control of Prospero's staff; and Ariel (Heledd Gwynn) was amazing especially terrifying as the harpy. And the puppets were fantastic.
"Ferdinand's relationship with Miranda worked really well. Alex Kingston was definitely the most likable Prospero we've seen, and she brought a really playful aspect to her character. You don't even think about Prospero being a traditionally male role - except maybe when some of the purple passages have the pronouns tweaked. But it's really not a big deal.
"The environment theme was subtle and well woven into the story. The set was striking, especially when the backdropp revealed the beautiful nature and the rubbish had disappeared. It definitely didn't feel preachy or boring."