The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, RSC, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

  AUGUST 2006  
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With more than a passing nod to a film-buff generation, the RSC's latest production of The Tempest is a dream-like feast of visual trickery and del ight. From the very first moments we are transported, not to the traditionally fanciful tropical dystopia but to a frozen wasteland, blasted by blizzards and peopled by indigenous Eskimos, elephant seals and Arctic sprites. This is an island of the frozen north, where the Northern Lights dance eerily in an ominous snow-heavy sky and shelter is vital from the incessant freezing wind. Prospero and his daughter have survived their own shipwreck by adopting the manners and habits of the islanders; Prospero's magic appears an extension of native religious practice, a colonizing influence which is in stark contrast to his Milan ese Mediterranean past.

Rupert Goold has directed a uniquely mesmeric production of The Tempest; at times the pace of the narrative seems to creep at such a snail-like pace that the monotony of existence and the perpetual wind and snow seem irrevocably intertwined. Snail-like yes, though the production never stalls, nev er falters, as the characters adapt to their unusual environment with the fortitude of survivors. Goold's concept is constant and faithfully reproduced by Giles Cadle's stunning set design, ably assisted by Nicky Gillibrand's evocative costumes.

Naturally, The Tempest begins with that most difficult of theatrical events, a storm-tossed ship at sea. Evoking its B-movie heritage in snow-dramas from 1930s Hollywood, this opening scene is a delightful homage to black-and-white films -- everything from an early Titanic to King Kong. We watch the drama unfold through the lens of a giant porthole; the sinking of the doomed vessel is a moment of theatre magic.

More magic is to come from the great performers who grace the Stratford stage. Like an Alaskan native-American 'trickster', Prospero stands, his arms outstretched and facing upstage away from the audience, conjuring the storm in the embers of his snow-shack oil-drum fire. Draped in a massive fur, complete with ominous whale-skull headdress, this magical figure dominates the stage. Patrick Stewart gives a superb performance as Prospero. This is no usurped and aged poet-duke, melodiously bewailing his lot and manipulating circumstances with reverential poesy; this is a usurped duke whose experiences and survival instinct have hardened him to his plight and strengthened his resolve to take advantage of escape at the first opportunity. This is a rugged Prospero, a Prospero whose magic is all the meaner, all the sharper, in its cold and calculated imperialism.

The magic that Prospero has discovered in himself or in the island he has conquered manifests itself in all who call the Milan ese ex-duke 'master'. Most famous 'slave' of all is Ariel, a character normally associated with wisp-like androgyny -- a fairy whose ancestry stems from a Robin Goodfellow/Puck past. Julian Bleach, an actor who has already demonstrated his stunning stage presence as the malignant Alexas in the closing moments of Antony and Cleopatra, gives a haunting interpretation of Ariel, at odds with the fairy tradition. This Ariel is a silent movie Nosferato out of Mephistopheles who glides ominously across the stage; Bleach conjures the child-like wickedness of this character, his withering looks worthy of the great Mesmer himself. Stewart and Bleach make a formidable pair -- the magic is all the more believable because of these diametrically-opposed though fascinatingly complementary performances.

Mariah Gale, as the gauche and innocent Miranda, daughter of Prospero, is dutifully excited by the sight of the 'brave new world' men who are shipwrecked by Prospero's tempest. What usually sits uncomfortably as a simplistic innocence becomes an awful reality as Prospero literally hypnotizes his daughter into mental submission. With all the panache of a stage Paul McKenna, Stewart clicks his paternal fingers and Gale's Miranda drops into a deep and dangerously penetrable sleep.

Nick Court plays Ferdinand, the love-interest of Miranda, although there is no doubt that Miranda's passions would be aroused by whichever 'new' man she laid her deferential eyes upon. Elsewhere, Ferdinand's father Alonso, the King of Naples and friend to the usurping Duke of Milan, is constantly at threat, not only from the island but also from his travelling companions. Finbar Lynch is dutifully pompous as the shipwrecked King, eventually reunited with his son and new daughter-in-law.

Comedy is supplied by Trinculo and Stephano, played by Craig Gazey and Joseph Alessi, whose knockabout lavatorial humour serves to underline the bitterness of colonialism. It is to these social reprobates that Cali ban, himself the child of a colonizing witch, proffers his respect and adoration. Under the influence of wine, Caliban is doubly-enslaved and forced to do the fools' bidding. John Light's anthropomorphic Caliban is, however, no match for the malignant sprite Ariel. This is one character for whom the change of focus and location are a hindrance.

Goold has presented a frozen Tempest, where Eskimo spirits dance and sing in discordant harmony; where feasts are sledged onstage as carcases of giant seals, blood oozing from their blubber-rich flesh. Where the shifting ice and snow gradually corrupts the flimsy wooden shelters and where cold and wind and bitterness are as real to the body as the coldness and bitterness of rejection and usurpation are to the soul. This is great theatre and one of the few Shakespeare experiences that are just that -- an experience. You too will be mesmerized by the strength and quality of this epic production.

Kevin Quarmby © 2006