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Has Prospero’s island ever seemed bleaker, more desert, than in the Royal Shakespeare’s current production? As the marooned characters roam around what is anyway Prospero’s place of exile, this windswept and rocky place casts new light on the play and, indeed, on Shakespeare. How many of his plays are about displacement. Exile, flight, escape, homelessness recur. Prismatically he picks up this theme in The Tempest and shows it here in anguish, here in obsession, here in ridiculous comedy. This production, directed by Rupert Goold and designed by Giles Cadle, is at once wholly Shakespearian and yet like no other Tempest.
Another quintessentially Shakespearian dramatic device that happens throughout this play and others is the one of eavesdropping, listening from a distance, spying (this is something that Jane Austen, who likewise turns it to brilliant effect, may have picked up from his work). Prospero (a shaman here, played by Patrick Stewart) and Ariel (a livid but compelling spectre – Julian Bleach) are forever involved in Big Brother observations of other characters, but those characters in turn survey each other, notably in the conspiracy of Antonio (Ken Bones) and Sebastian (John Hopkins). Perhaps this is the most multi-layered of all Shakespeare plays, and the layerings here are all to do with power: Caliban bullied by Stephano, both taking orders from Trinculo, all observed by Ariel, who in turn keeps demanding his liberty from Prospero. Both Ferdinand and Miranda are in thrall to Prospero, and the layerings of the Neapolitan and Milanese courts are all densely and economically achieved. How many characters here enter at the end of a rope, their necks haltered.
I found this a revelatory production, even more so than when new last August in Stratford-upon-Avon. Watching it on a non-press night, I marvelled at its ability to compel keen attention and lively responses from the schools parties in the audience, as riveted as myself. John Light (costumed to look the positive to Ariel’s negative) is now an excellent Caliban, working with the verse to make this rebel vivid. Stewart, who likewise has settled into using the verse without chopping it, has done nothing finer than this multi-faceted Prospero, his actorly skills all poured into a natural account of the character as exile, magician, father and artist.
The stillness and quiet of Finbar Lynch as the grieving Alonso, the incisive cynicism of Hopkins’s Sebastian, the strange childlike immaturity of Mariah Gale’s truly innocent Miranda: these are among the marvels of a cast who all make this well-known play entirely fresh and in whose hands the play itself becomes more richly engrossing than ever. ★★★★★ Tel +44 870 950 0940