The Tempest @ Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

cast list
Joseph Alessi
Ravi Aujla
Paul Barnhill
Julian Bleach
Ken Bones
Allyson Brown
Rob Carroll
Nick Court
Mariah Gale
Craig Gazey
James Hopkins
Chris Jarman
Edmund Kingsley
John Light
Finbar Lynch
Luke Neal
Golda Rosheuvel
David Rubin
Patrick Stewart
Emma Jay Thomas

directed by
Rupert Goold
Rupert Goold’s production of Shakespeare’s late play is as barren as the Arctic landscape he sets it in. It is hard to believe that this is by the same company that is currently triumphing in the Henry VI trilogy, next door in the Courtyard Theatre.

The Tempest is almost devoid of ideas, other than to throw in as many visual references to the location as possible, including the aurora borealis and a dead whale. Setting the play in a desolate wintry wilderness may say something about Prospero’s inner state but it makes the play very cold and colourless. The use of a black curtain, which sweeps across the stage frequently to hide scene changes, is reminiscent of the school hall.

Patrick Stewart is a very fine actor. He is currently receiving great acclaim in Anthony and Cleopatra but I found his Prospero deeply disappointing. He has no authority, due to a ranting angry delivery throughout and a shuffling, crouched gait. Bitterness is no doubt a part of what drives Prospero but to make it too overt is to diminish the character’s power and to make him one-dimensional.

Mariah Gale plays Miranda as an annoying little girl and John Hopkins’ Ferdinand bellows most of his text. John Light as Caliban seems to be sleepwalking through his part, while Trinculo and Stephano struggle to find any humour in their scenes other than the most obvious tricks that will win over a tourist audience.

On the positive side, there’s an impressive opening storm scene, with a ship’s cabin viewed through a large porthole, which promises much more than the production subsequently delivers. Ariel (Julian Bleach) is conceived as a ghostlike figure, which gives an unusual slant on the enslaved spirit.

There is one moment towards the end of the play where there’s a spark of real life. Sadly, it only lasts for a second or two. When Miranda says “O Brave New World that has such people in it” and innocently embraces the traitorous Sebastian (Ken Bones), Prospero swiftly and curtly replies “‘Tis new to thee”. All the bitterness that has been festering for the twelve years of his exile comes out. Had he not been venting his anger throughout the play and this been the only expression of it, it would have been an electrifying moment. More insights like this could have made it a worthwhile production, whatever the setting. The release of Ariel, all fire and ice, is also a theatrical moment.

Other than that, I can find little to recommend it. Even the placing of the interval is odd. The play runs for 2 hours and 40 minutes and the interval comes after 1 hour and 40 minutes, finishing with Prospero’s “They are now in my power”, which curtails Act 3. The very short second half would be even briefer if it weren’t for an overlong sequence with the spirit Goddesses, who intone the dreary score for what seems like forever.

Under Goold’s direction, there is nothing majestic about Prospero, nothing attractive about the lovers, nothing monstrous about Caliban, and nothing funny about Trinculo and Stephano. This is a Tempest without magic and the production makes one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays seem interminable.

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