“The Shipwreck Trilogy”
Royal Shakespeare Theatre
Stratford Upon Avon
26th April 2012, 1 pm
Directed by David Farr
The third in the so-called “trilogy”. A misnomer. Trilogies have linked stories. Of these three, two merely have a coincidental plot device for separating people: the shipwreck. This is the real shipwreck one that the stage was made for and where it all comes together. We loved the Comedy of Errors, first in the cycle, but thought the company did a bellyflop on Twelfth Night, the second. The Tempest is the third, and as a late play (1611-1612) major contrast with the early Comedy of Errors (1592) and the middle period Twelfth Night (1599-1600). The reliance on magic and music indicates it was written for the private theatres with the aristocratic audiences, not the large open air public theatres in broad daylight. It’s also wordy and poetic, again private theatres at court come to mind.
The Tempest had an advantage. The last time I saw a full cast production was many years ago, I’ve only seen a minimal version (cast of four?) in recent years. I remember little of previous productions, and this gives the RSC an headstart. No comparisons. What was worrying beforehand was other online theatre blogs. The common complaint was lack of projection from the main actors and difficult accents. Well, we were in the back row of the Upper Circle, as far as you can get from the stage, and everyone was perfectly clear.
The grey set came into its own, with ragged edges and holes in several places. The visible water tank in the two comedies had been drained. A silver box which could be transparent or opaque was Prospero’s shimmering “cell” (Shakespeare meant ‘grotto’).
Jonathan Slinger as Prospero
Jonathan Slinger is a young-looking Prospero. You think of Prospero with a long grey beard (at least I do), but when Shakespeare was writing so convincingly of old age in King Lear in 1608, he was only forty-four himself. The Tempest, written in 1611 or 1612, sees him as forty-eight. Prospero was exiled from Milan twelve years before the action, when Miranda was three. So playing him as a 70-year old Gandalf-style wizard is far less likely than playing him as a man of Slinger’s actual age (forty).
After a cameo as Dr Pinch in The Comedy, and a not altogether convincing Malvolio in Twelfth Night, it was good to see Slinger let fly in a major role. He did Prospero justice. The soliloquy is his strong point. One of the difficulties of the play (exactly as in the Comedy of Errors with Egeon) is having someone explain a lot of back story in one long speech at the start. Slinger as Prospero made it crystal clear. He also brings out the emotional nuances of Prospero’s lines. It’s one of the “great” acting performances in a particular role I’ve seen.
Equally outstanding was Sandy Grierson as Ariel, with a reduced Scottish accent too. Ariel is dressed identically to Prospero, with the same shaven head. They both have a streak of mud on their tattered suits (they’ve been there twelve years) in exactly the same place. So Ariel’s spirit is part of Prospero, the part that is released when Prospero gives up magic at the end. On the way home we discussed it. Both of us had expected Prospero to break his wooden rod when he gave up his magic, but he didn’t. It was a symbol of male domination. Every time it was whacked on the stage the sound was amplified. The male domination ran to two sprites holding a rope between Ferdinand, son of the King of Naples, and Miranda while Prospero gave (fierce) fatherly warnings. Above all else, Grierson sang the songs with music which was newly composed, brilliantly. The arrangements were a long way from the make-the-tune-up as you go along ditties so often used in the past. Good melodies, good backing, first-rate vocals. Having four sprites popping up around him silently helped, and the sprites had to work non-stop, with constant costume changes (shabby suits, pink Pierrot costumes, goddesses, a pack of snarling hounds.
Emily Taafe was in her third major role: Luciana to Viola to Miranda in three days. Her small stature was used to effect, making sense of Prospero’s references to her as a child. I can see learning two alternating major parts … but three? She did.
Kirsty Bushell as Sebastian
The surprise casting was making Sebastian a woman, so the scheming sister of the King of Naples rather than the bloodthirsty brother. One reason is basic. It’s an ensemble. Kirsty Bushell was outstanding as Adriana and as Olivia, so one of the strongest actors in the company. The Tempest only has one decent female part, Miranda, who is supposed to be fifteen, so Emily Taafe is the obvious casting. You couldn’t relegate Ms Bushell to sprite duty, so using your best resources most effectively meant switching the gender of one of the party. This was done right. Red dress, high heels. In other Shakespeare productions they’ve switched the gender of the actor but not the character. It’s a bonus. A woman in red among all the suits makes the set look better at a base level, but she’s very good in the role, and it works with a small word change to ‘sister’ in a speech or two. I thought someone addressed her as ‘Sebastio’ but that’s not what the programme says. It made me reflect on ensemble series, and that actors will be chosen for one or two, and fitted in for the third. There are a few examples in this set of three. In The Tempest, several had their most natural roles.
Caliban was played by Amer Helehl, who had bit parts in the other two. Casting with an Arab accent refers to a line about his witch mother being from Algiers . He was a sensible-looking Caliban. Basically a fairly sturdy bloke, with a lot of dirt on his head in a grubby vest. Not misshapen, nor drooling, nor hobbling about. I’m not sure about the interpretation. It’s less funny (though more PC) to have an undistorted Caliban, and it brings out the point that while Prospero was usurped from his dukedom, so was Caliban from his island. An articulate and non-grotesque Caliban changes all the angles. Caliban, like immigrants so often, is only a grotesque in Prospero’s eyes, not in reality.
Trinculo & Stephano
The Bruce Mackinnon / Falix Hayes comedy duo got their third outing as Trinculo and Stephano, the cook and ‘butler’ (i.e. wine steward). All the alcohol business with Caliban was funny. They were very good, as they were throughout the series.
Music has been mentioned, and is a major point in the play. The other is spectacle in the Masque. This was beautiful with all three women (Iris, Ceres and Juno) in gorgeous costumes, and with two flown in. Spectacle and tableau would have been part of the original. Here it was enlivened by having a sprite acting as a puppeteer next to each goddess, mirroring every gesture as if controlling them. It was physical acting of dance-troupe / mime troupe quality. Ariel was flown in suddenly transformed with feathers and wings for a speech too. They rebuilt the theatre for flying, and they make use of it in every production.
A word for Jan Knightley who spent the series of three as an old seadog (Antonio, sea captain, boatswain) in the same North Atlantic fisherman costume.
The Tempest is what an audience coming to Stratford for their one and only visit is hoping for. It has the essential elements. Charismatic lead actor (Jonathan Slinger) declaiming the “BIG” speeches. New comedy spotlighted all over the text. Lively action. A magnificent set. Spectacle. Music. Faithful to the text. Those who go to the RSC in Stratford often might seek quirkier takes on the major plays, but for many people it’s a one-off experience of Shakespeare in the dedicated theatre. This is just what they want.
A word on The Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Our honeymoon and our awe at the rebuilt theatre is definitely over. For this series of three we managed to book really bad seating positions every time. We knew it, which was why we then took out Associate Membership so we could book early for the next batch. We had back row stalls, back row circle, back row upper circle. To one degree or another seats were uncomfortable, but far worse, every one had “restricted view” of one kind or another. The roof blocks out high acting areas. In the upper circle, the giddying angle cuts off the front of the thrust stage. I believe they need to get directors watching EARLY rehearsals, long before money is committed to three floor lifts, or pools at the extreme front, from the “worst seats”. And there are a high proportion of seats with one restriction or another. The thrust stage has to compromise the view for some of the audience, which is probably why the proscenium arch took over in the first place. It’s an extraordinarily dynamic acting area, but the far peripheries, vertically and horizontally, are not places to linger too long in, nor areas to site essential actions.