Mark Rylance clearly relishes a challenge. The World and Underworld season at the Globe is his last as artistic director; it would have been easy for him to turn in a safe and straight-forward Prospero and finish off his tenure in a muted but popular manner.
Instead he opted to stage Shakespeare’s late play using only three men – and a rope. The resulting production has been met with a rather sniffy reception by the critics but surely it’s to Rylance’s credit that he was willing to take creative risks up until the last.
Prospero, as played by Rylance, is a man capable of descending into quiet depression and of working himself up into a magical rage. According to the play’s director, Tim Carroll, there was a definite and conscious decision to paint Ariel and Caliban as direct opposites within the production – letting them reflect the different elements of Prospero’s character as they war with each other for dominance.
Once the psychological reasoning behind this decision is understood it becomes easier to see how the remaining roles were apportioned amongst the cast. So, in addition to playing Prospero, Rylance also gives a very funny performance as the drunk Stephano – who Caliban mistakes for a god.
But this role-hopping is less successful when he switches to some of the smaller parts: Alonso or Sebastian. This isn’t a comment on his skill as an actor; it’s just that, unless you know the play very well, it can become rather confusing working out exactly who is talking to who.
Edward Hogg takes on the roles of Miranda and Ariel. He plays them both as other-worldly intellectuals who see only the best in the people around them. His Miranda is not only very engaging in her innocence but also very funny; her wonder and coyness around Fernando drew some of the biggest laughs from the yard.
Of the three actors, Alex Hassell is perhaps the most successful at clearly defining his roles in the eyes of the audience. His Caliban is a true creature of the earth; he walks with his knees bent and swings and hops around the stage. It’s quite a performance, which therefore makes it even more impressive when he, in the blink of an eye, transforms himself into the handsome hero Fernando.
This is a complex and concept-heavy version of the Tempest requiring the total commitment and concentration of the three actors involved. Though they all perform superbly in their various roles, the production fails to satisfy on a number of levels. A few of the devices used in the play confuse more than they enlighten: there are these chess pieces that, at the beginning, seem like a rather clever idea but they soon feel overused. And the novelty of that rope, dangling in the centre of the stage, soon starts to wear thin – although when Caliban swings from it or Ariel uses it to fly, it does come into its own.
It’s not just the props that create problems. Though the harmonising of the six singers, who sat above the stage and performed with no accompanying instruments, was undoubtedly beautiful, it often distracted from the action.
The same could be said for the dancers (for some bizarre reason clad in leather jackets) who represented the spirits Prospero commanded on the island. The only time their presence actually worked was during the sequence when Prospero conjures a wedding masque, then the Globe worked its particular magic and the audience were spellbound.
In the end that was the real problems with this production: everything had the potential to work well – you could see the thinking behind each of the elements – but thrown together the whole thing jarred. This Tempest was a worthy experiment that did not quite come off.