We are such stuff as dreams are made on.
Gregory Doran’s latest venture as Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company was met with almost tempestuous excitement/apprehension. When announced that the RSC were teaming up with Intel to craft their summer season’s The Tempest, it would not have been unusual to scowl and declare “But what about the performances?!” I, too, held that fear but, with the fear, came a great deal of curiosity. I wanted to see the play. I wanted to see how it would work. Or, even, if it does work at all.
In answer to the question: does it work at all? Yes. Yes it does. It works wonders.
I have never felt I truly understood The Tempest and, therefore (quite foolishly of me), I cast it off as “not one of his best” and “a bit weird”. That always puzzled me, however, as it is his last play that we know of and so one can assume that it would be the pinnacle of all he learnt. Normally, when I see Shakespeare, my mind is made up before I enter the theatre, and my mind is rarely challenged by what I see. But this triumphant production did just that. I came out of the theatre loving The Tempest.
What this interpretation does exceptionally well is proving that amongst the storm and the strange is a potent and lasting exploration of humanity. The ‘monsters’ of the piece (Caliban and Ariel) are vividly human: vulnerable and emotional, along with the deeply flawed Prospero, the youthful Miranda and the ambitious Antonio and Sebastian. Small moments such as Caliban’s interaction with a lone butterfly and the devastating effect of Ariel’s “do you love me, master?” offer stark insights into the mind of man.
Simon Russell Beale is a powerful Prospero, less happy-clappy than other Prosperos, less of a granddad and more of a tyrant. It is hard to like him, but harder still to be unsympathetic towards his plight. A plight that has led him on a revenge mission and, as the audience is left wondering, for what?
However, Beale’s top acting chops are upstaged by the mesmeric Mark Quartley as the spirit Ariel. He’s a triple threat and not a single thing is sub-par. He stalks the stage, in control of every slow movement, every tilt of his sharp-featured head, every upside-down balancing act. He slinks on to the stage and you hardly notice until he’s in the face of a character. His verse is astonishing. His emotion is riveting. His physicality is impeccable. Whereas Ariel is often spirited and airy, Quartley is an unnerving thing of beauty.
Jenny Rainsford is a bright, quick and refreshing Miranda. Tom Turner is a smarmy cad of a Sebastian: machiavellian and pathetic – a delightful performance. Simon Trinder brings gusto to the fool Trinculo whilst Tony Jayawardena is an interestingly cultured take on the normally piggish and revolting Stephano: I like it a lot. Basically, there isn’t a weak link.
The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s most open-ended plays, and this production plays on that beautifully. Prospero is not contented. Antonio and Sebastian will not change their ways. His revenge is oddly anti-climactic, albeit being the climax of the play. Where will Ariel go? One cannot help but feel that Prospero has ruined Ariel’s life. I got a strange sense of Prospero having taken Ariel’s best days, his golden years, and now he is spent under the service of a master. Freedom seems hollow. Caliban is condemned a monster despite proving himself human to the audience, and leaves. To where? We’ll never know. We are left with more questions than answers.
And, finally, the Intel technology is a groundbreaking triumph. Genuinely magical. The floor lights up creating the ground and hell simultaneously. Ariel flies across the stage before he is trapped in the winding prison of trees. Dogs savage on the surfaces of drums. It’s alive, just like the island. The image of bodies floating to the bottom of the ocean is particularly haunting, especially when paired with Quartley’s chilling vocals in Full Fathom Five. Goosebumps.
RSC’s The Tempest is a glittering delight to the senses: a potent exploration of human nature but infinitely magical.