RSC: The Tempest

London F34

On a bright but cold January morning, students studying The Tempest were taken up to Stratford by coach. What follows are my observations on the production they saw.

Our first sighting of Prospero in this production convinced us of the magus’s age. Hunched over a staff far too large for him it was difficult to see it as a wand of power and more an aid to mobility. This defined the tone of much of the production with Prospero depicted as a rather tetchy old man. And speaking of fury, I liked particularly the way Ferdinand and Miranda were presented as angry and frustrated by his reiterations on the subject of the latter retaining her virginity: this production seemingly understands how odd is this repeated injunction. The injunction is of course coded through the masque and the decision on the part of this director to have the masque end at the moment the two young lovers display a little too much intimacy in their dance (so far as the possessive father is concerned) is an intelligent one.

Simon Russell Beale was dressed in the kind of gown, dusty with chalk, teachers were still wearing in my school days though the way Miranda is blindfolded as a prelude to her encounter with Ferdinand underlines the way Prospero tries to control when and how Miranda finds things out and calls into question how good a tutor he actually is. She is in this production a pastoral child of nature who can lift with ease the very logs with which Ferdinand struggles and might therefore represent an improvement on the previous generation: very much to the point where the pastoral form is concerned of course.  At the end of the play her “brave new world” speech is directed at all of the island visitors excepting Antonio and Sebastian whereas in the BBC production she looks directly at them as she speaks those lines. She seemed in this production to have an instinctive understanding of whom her speech should comprehend and whom it should not.

I was somewhat troubled by Caliban’s costume and was trying to work out for much of the performance whether the prominent backbone of which he seemed in possession was intended to mark him as deformed which given Neo-Platonic ideas occasionally surfacing in the play would make a moral judgement on him too.  Or was it simply a bizarre sartorial accessory? The physical presentation was certainly at odds with the absolute clarity with which he delivered his blank verse lines- which either makes a point or registers an incoherence in the production’s conception of him: I do not know which. Those he teams up with provide the broad comedy of the play: Trinculo wears Vivienne Westwood style tartan trousers and resembles the lead singer of the Prodigy while Stephano played by Tony Jaywardna perfectly catches that character’s continual attempts at a dignity that constantly eludes him.

This production scores very highly in terms of acting and I would single out Simon Russell Beale’s reaction to Ariel’s suggestion that he might feel something for those he is punishing.  My very positive reaction to this production was shared both my colleagues and the students themselves.    

Richard Martin