By William Shakespeare
Directed by Dominic Dromgoole
Music Composed by Stephen Warbeck
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse,
Shakespeare’s Globe, Southwark, London
Saturday 20th February 2016. 14.30
Fisayo Akinade – Caliban
Trevor Fox – Stephano
Darren Kupan – Boatswain / Adrian
Christopher Logan – Sebastian
Joseph Marcell – Gonzalo
Tim McMullan – Prospero
Pippa Nixon – Ariel
Dominic Rowan – Trinculo
Brendan O’Hea – Antonio
Dharmesh Patel – Ferdinand
Tika Peucelle – Iris
Phoebe Pryce – Miranda
Paul Rider – Alonso
Sid Sagar – Shipmaster / Ceres / Francisco
This should be a major event. Dominic Dromgoole’s final play at The Globe, with two of our favourite actors, Pippa Nixon as Ariel and Christopher Logan as Sebastian. But …
The Tempest was among the first few Shakespeare plays I ever saw on stage. It was a sixth form production at the local girls’ convent school, and we knew several of the cast. A group of we sixth-form lads bought tickets to see it. We were seated at the back, and I’d swear a nun was assigned to watch us intently throughout. That was Prospero played by a 17 year old girl with a hook-on beard. In the 90s we sat through a small-cast touring production with a cast of five or six and no props.
The other end of the spectrum was the RSC production of The Tempest in their 2012 Shipwrecked Season. That had the cast wading through water, lots of flying, magical tableaux, a state-of-the-art magical lighting plot. That end of the spectrum has traditionally been occupied by The Tempest. An 1857 production had a stage crew of 140 and Ariel descending in fireballs.
So the major interest was what the play was like in the facsimile of a private 17th Jacobean theatre. Certainly the elaborate masques and pageants and tableaux of the era had major artists designing sets and costumes, yet we assume that the theatre troupes used the buildings mainly as they were. It’s probable that their aristocratic patrons passed on the odd costume, so not impossible that other paraphernalia … wooden trees or whatever … passed from pageants and masques to the companies. A “Hell’s Mouth” is listed among the props owned at the time. I have the feeling that this production wanted to show the “state of the art for 1610.” The inner stage was filled with a painted layered seascape and boat for the shipwreck, In the masque, as well as two gods descending from on high, they had a small backdrop painting of a building blocking off the inner stage. Ariel had several descents on wires, but one superb one with outstretched wings manipulated with poles from the balcony. They had a layered rock on wheels, which was put to good use stage centre. Two of the gods in the tableaux descended on wires, and a bearded Ceres in a dress (Sid Sagar) is a guaranteed laugh. Platforms were rolled forward from the inner stage with food-laden tables, or Miranda and Ferdinand playing chess. Goblins with skeleton dinosaurs, and nymphs and ghosts were all memorable strong points. I reckon they were right on how good 1610 could get it.
Prospero with wand (Tim McMullan)
The beginning, with an incredibly dramatic musical score, followed by a well-choreographed dramatic but also funny shipwreck scene … all done by acting, no water or sails in sight … promised great things.
I see they credit a costume supervisor and head of wardrobe, but not a “costume designer.” This is significant. The costumes were poor. It was “go to the stock cupboard and pull out the black Jacobean stuff with white ruffs … we have so many there that we can get a fit.” Prospero was in generic Jacobean. Nothing magical or entrancing about his costume at all. I wanted magician’s robes. Shakespeare, ever practical, had written in the justification for Prospero being cast away on an island, still in impressive magus gear after twelve years. When Gonzalo set the exiled Prospero and the three year old Miranda adrift in the ‘rotten barque’, he furnished them not only with Prospero’s books, but with “rich garments, linen, stuffs and necessaries.” Gonzalo’s foresight in providing dresses for a growing Miranda for the next twelve years was commendable. Actually, Miranda’s dress, cobbled together from fabrics of different lengths (from the linens and stuffs perhaps) was the best costume of the day.
Pippa Nixon as Ariel, Paul Rider as Alonso
Ariel had a black top with gold hippy sun design. I’d guess that you can pick it up easily enough at the Glastonbury Festival or Camden Market. Caliban, usually a semi-bestial creation, was just a normal looking Afro-Caribbean guy with a very mild limp. It was traditional to cast a black actor as Caliban to reflect the colonial theme, but he’s also supposed to be extraordinary and bestial. Well-acted, but visually, it was the weakest Caliban we’ve seen.
The costumes afflicted the Neapolitan and Milanese nobility – Alonso, King of Naples, Antonio, the usurper Duke of Milan (Prospero’s brother) and Sebastian, King Alonso’s brother, particularly. They all had the same boring black costume. I guess the aim was to emphasise them as a group. They were pretty much indistinguishable. I spent a few minutes trying to guess which was Alonso and which Antonio, and I know the play reasonably well. Antonio and Sebastian, two brothers, were played by Brendan O’Hea and Christopher Logan. Both are actors of comic genius. O’Hea’s Lucio in Measure for Measure was tears-down-the-face funny, as was his King Lewis of France in The Globe’s touring Henry VI. O’Hea was totally unrecognisable as Antonio – I hadn’t even realised it was him till I linked this review to Measure for Measure. It’s bizarre to employ actors of Logan and O’Hea’s proven comic ability and strand them in these roles, though I’d say exactly the same about their roles in Cymbeline. They did have moments, such as when the nobles crossed over the inner stage, wandering lost around the island, but not enough. The nobles scenes dragged and fell flat for us … they were heavily cut, I think. None of them seemed like a bunch of evil plotters. Just blokes dressed in black, stranded somewhere.
The costumes came alive in the masque, with headdresses for the gods which do look like the elaborate masques of the day, but overall, costume was a whole area of the play that failed to engage.
Tim McMullan as Prospero
Tim McMullan as Prospero has a fine, rich voice, definitely one for an audio version. He was often placed prologue like, facing front, declaiming. Prospero has some remarkable speeches and they were given full focus. He had good comic timing and finely-judged pauses on scenes with Miranda … but Prospero is supposed to be powerful, and yes, frightening, and he really wasn’t either, and in that he was hampered by the boring costume. We didn’t ever feel that Ariel and Caliban were enslaved in his power. He didn’t even break his magic staff at the end! And how do we know that 17th century England thought Milan was pronounced Mill (un)? And if so why did Prospero say Mill- AN at least twice? Also, whether 1610 thought Milan should be Mill(un) or not is irrelevant. Maybe it assists rhymes, I didn’t notice, but it sticks out like a sore thumb and irritates. If it’s a footnote on original pronunciation, it’s a merely pedantic point, and a skippable one.
Pippa Nixon as Ariel
Pippa Nixon has given some of the best performances we’ve ever seen, and she flitted around nicely as Ariel. Ariel’s a spirit, and so works equally well as male or female. I don’t know how often she had to exit through the pits only to reappear on the balcony or on a wire seconds later. She must have spent the play racing between the positions. But for one of the best few actresses of her generation, it was a limited part because so much is positioning and reacting, though obviously she shone in it.
The best bits, not unexpectedly, were the comic duo, the jester Trinculo (Dominic Rowan) and the drunken ship’s butler Stephano (Trevor Fox). Rowan in particular defined the Shakespearean clown thing by improvising lines and stretching beyond the text, as for sure the comic specialists playing the roles in 1610 would have done. He played Vincentio in Dromgoole’s Measure for Measure in the summer of 2015, a production so good that I saw it twice, and this cast was something of a Measure for Measure reunion. Rowan’s relaxed ease with an audience is almost a trademark, and it was a delight to see it in an overtly comic role, though his work when Vincentio was dressed as a monk also got massive laughs last summer. Fox had played Pompey the Tapster in the same production. They both worked audience interaction, and added interjections. The scene where they all end up beneath the “gabardine” covering the prone Caliban on stage was masterly comic direction. From there they formed a good visual (and comic) trio with Caliban, much shorter, in the middle.
Fisayo Akinade as Caliban
In the end, we found it academically fascinating in seeing how much Shakespeare might have been able to do with the available resources, but really The Tempest more than any other play demands a magical lighting plot, ethereal costumes, an island set, water. Watching The Winter’s Tale in the stripped down Wanamaker setting brought out new aspects of the play for me. The Tempest demonstrated how much better it can be done with a few electric lights, and magical costumes. A beautiful production in highlighting the language, but less so in other areas.
Half of the cast are playing in Cymbeline at the same time.
The Wanamaker is always a venue which you feel privileged to visit, but with this play we really did feel the lack of modern theatrical production magic. We have seen nearly all the full plays there since it opened, so we no longer have the sense of wonder of simply being there in the intimacy and candlelight … we heard people going out who were there for the first time and were stunned by how wonderful it all was.
The music, composed by Stephen Warbeck was eerie and compelling. The MD, Sarah Homer, played “clarinets” as well as a bass drum for effects. The clarinet was huge, looking larger than a baritone saxophone. She was accompanied by Fiona Clifton-Welker on a full size harp, Nick Cooper on cello and Dario Rosetti-Bonell on guitars. It was an unusual combination. It’s the most important play for music, and Pippa Nixon had proven singing ability from As You Like It which must have been a further reason to cast her as Ariel.
5 stars, of course
OTHR REVIEWS ON THIS BLOG:
Measure for Measure, Globe 2015
Romeo & Juliet – Globe
The Changeling – Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Julius Caesar – Globe
Hamlet – Globe
Duchess of Malfi– Sam Wanamaker
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Globe
Pericles, Wanamaker Playhouse, 2015
Therese Raquin, Bath, 2014
As You Like It RSC 2013 (Rosalind)
Hamlet RSC 2013 (Ophelia)
Richard III, RSC 2012 (Lady Anne)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – RSC 2011 (Titania)
The City Madam, RSC 2012
Cardenio RSC 2012
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Headlong (Bottom, Pyramus)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Globe (Thisbe)
Julius Caesar, The Globe
The Way of The World, Chichester
Cymbeline, Wanamaker Playhouse 2015