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THE TEMPEST Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon




The talking-point is Ariel: a daring innovation for live theatre. Motion-capture technology sensors on Mark Quartley’s graceful body – skintight in an airy suit of cloudy blue muscle give him a double presence. So sometimes (not constantly) as he leaps and crouches and gestures a vast projected avatar of flame, nymph or terrifying harpy can fly or flare overhead. And indeed the production is visually beautiful: Stephen Brimson Lewis’ design and the Imaginarium studios update the mission of 17c masque to make us gasp and marvel. Framed in the ribs of a great wrecked hull we see marvellous things: even Prospero’s classical display of fertility spirits does not slow the final scenes, but shimmers with high operatic intensity (Paul Englishby’s music breaks your heart). Even if Iris and Ceres do, in their fantastical costumes, evoke a sudden curious memory of Edina and Patsy.
But never mind all that. For all the glory and ingenuity of spectacle, the point is is that Gregory Doran’s superlative production, with Simon Russell Beale as Prospero, is the gold standard: the Tempest against which others are compared for decades to come. For Doran the text must always yield up its secrets, not a word or phrase unconsidered, so that even the most familiar plays spring to life and startle under his direction.



This is my third Tempest this year alone, yet aspects of the play hit me afresh. I have never seen more clearly the delicacy of the scene where Antonio and Sebastian move from irritable shipwrecked banter to murderous conspiracy: it is like a telescoped Macbeth, with Tom Turner’s swaggering Sebastian tempted and Oscar Pierce, smaller in heart and stature, at moments jesting about murder like Richard III. Nor, for a moment, did I understand the reason for a brief comic moment when the herd of strange pale ragged spirits tease the labouring Caliban : Joe Dixon, huge , menacingly ungainly, primitive in pathos, always clutching a fish like a great twisted child with a comforter . But a moment later Caliban’s own line “for every trifle are they set upon me!” recounts his torments and in that deft flick of a touch, his inwardness is laid open. Some of the text’s strange meaning is illuminated simply by the physical: as Ariel sings Full Fathom Five the spirits become floating corpses between the old timbers, and often you glance aloft at the ragged beams and see Quartley’s graceful shape watching, vigilant, his spirit-face intent as he observes human behaviour. This haunting presence, and a sudden still, unplayful moment at his “Do you love me, Master?” add new depth to his final, shattering evocation of pity.

It is a deep production: full fathom five. Russell Beale’s Prospero is a marvel of thoughtful intelligence as one would expect: wound with tension from the opening, too lonely in his power for private peace. This is not a lordly magical ruler but an old man half- broken by long painful scholarship, burning resentment and the vengeful heart which is his own “thing of darkness” . Odd irascible paternal moments (SRB can do comedy, as we know) do not diminish a deeply human evocation of pain and need. Done with such feeling the play shakes the heart more deeply even than Lear, because of the electric moment when Ariel, inhuman, has been watching the suffering of the captives and confronts his master with the need to let his heart move : “Mine would sir, were I human!” . Beale roars, suddenly, terrifyingly: twelve years’ frustrated vengefulness escaping in broken breath. For he must forgive, break his staff and drown the book, and imagine no more harpies. This Prospero, in sudden painful gentleness, finds the reconciliation and redemption which Lear never does. I was shaken, close to tears, still held by it through a four hour drive home in the windy dark.
Ah well. If this earnestness puts you off, let me reassure you that there are some excellent laughs. Trinculo and Stephano are genuinely funny, their relationship mirroring the theme of dominance. And very fine jokes are the Miranda-firewood one and the “brave utensils”. Oh, see it for yourself.
box office 0844 800 1110 to 21 January
rating five    5 Meece Rating


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