Tempest a wonderful shipwreck production
The Tempest is a play for which it is possible to feel real affection. In this it is, of course, unlike the tragedies: you can't imagine having warm, happy, cheerful or loving feelings about Macbeth, Hamlet or Othello. (There was a famous American Yiddish theatre production of King Lear - the moral of it being, "You bring them up, feed them, clothe them; then look what they do to you in your old age!" You can perhaps conceive of feeling affectionate in a superior, amused way about such a staging.) It's possible to love the tragedies, as it is The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet and several of the comedies and histories - and as it is not, say, the Taming of the Shrew or Timon of Athens.
Why am I fond of The Tempest? Not because it suits my political feelings. I can see merit in the interpretation that says the play's point is anti-colonialism - it's a reading that fits. But it can't be the whole story, and making it so has resulted in any number of poor productions that I've seen. The Tempest is too much a tale of the natural order being subverted and restored - of dukes being dukes and princes, princes, and of Miranda being a natural aristocrat, though all the home she knows is the desert isle - to impose a single ideological straitjacket on its plot and subplots.
Kirsty Bushell as "Sebastian"
It's also obviously about the dangers of nature - the storm; and about the unnatural - Caliban, Sycorax his dam, Prospero's spells, and Ariel's capabilities, for all that he is wholly lovable. Prospero's love for his daughter is genuine, as is hers and Ferdinand's, and The Tempest is a love story/comedy - with some funny lines, especially for Stephano and Trinculo. The felicitous language of the play is another attraction for its devotees - who ever tires of hearing "Our revels now are ended," or "O brave new world"?
(The sole unsatisfying feature of Thomas Adès's opera, The Tempest, is the loss of some of these lines, made hard to hear by the soprano's soaring above the stave notes.)
The Royal Shakespeare Company has found a relatively new way to approach the play, by making it part of what they call "Shakespeare's Shipwreck Trilogy" or "What Country Friends is This?" Using a specially formed (and talented) repertory company and much of Jon Bausor's set for the other two, The Comedy of Errors (which I've seen and relished) and Twelfth Night (not yet seen), this grouping of the plays zeroes in on the consequences of the initial calamity in each.
It works a treat with this (mostly) modern dress Tempest, partly because the casting is so fine. Even that wimp, Ferdinand, is here given some smoochy romantic street-cred by Solomon Israel. Emily Taafe is a convincing teen-aged Miranda. Director David Farr has given Sebastian a gender-reassignment, and it works. Kirsty Bushell not only distinguishes herself by her slink dress, from the her co-conspirator, but also Sebastian's oaths and bitching stand out from the others' mutterings, coming as they do from a woman.
The comic duo, Felix Hayes's just-right camp Trinculo and Bruce Mackinnon's leering Stephano, are ace. Amer Hlehel makes Caliban the Other, the foreigner in our midst, the Neanderthal up against Homo sapiens. Best though are the twinned Ariel of Sandy Grierson and Prospero of Jonathan Slinger, particularly in the second half. They are dressed alike in distressed suits, with lapels revealing the canvas substructure, and identical close-cropped haircuts and shiny makeup. (The attendant spirits are similarly costumed and coiffed.) The directorial genius is to have seen that it is their near-identity that makes Prospero's powers seem credible, as we already believe that Ariel is a spirit.
This is only the second or third time I've seen a production of The Tempest in which the Act IV masque works as an integral part of the play. It succeeds here, too, because of the twinning - Iris, Ceres and Juno are just the sort of girls you expect this pair to hang out with.
That wonderful actor, Nicholas Day, here has the part of Gonzalo, and performs it beautifully. It might seem a little unrewarding. But as my mentor, Harry Levin, taught us in his Harvard seminar, Gonzalo's speech describing his Utopian vision is the beating heart of the play.
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