August 11, 2006, by Peter Kirwan
The Tempest (RSC) @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre
Last night’s show was ‘The Tempest’ at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the third and final play performed by the company of ‘Antony & Cleopatra’ and ‘Julius Caesar’. The big draw tonight was, of course, Patrick Stewart as Prospero, but aside from that it’s the first of the romances to be shown as a full production this year, and I was very excited to be seeing a play that I hadn’t really studied since A-level.
It was, as you’d expect, very good! Patrick Stewart made for a particularly vulnerable Prospero, with wonderful interpretations of the famous speeches and a lovely moment at the end when he tentatively gestured for applause to end the play, with an enormous look of relief when he got it.
The set and design were quite lavish, and this is the first play of the year where blackouts for scene changes and use of the safety curtain in the interval were so prominent, so was very different to the apparent ‘house style’ of the RSC, which usually favours continuous action.
The highlight for me was a wonderfully dark Ariel, who wandered slowly up and down the stage with white face and black robes almost like a gothic horror character. This was a powerful Ariel, who once or twice almost seemed a threat to Prospero, and his disappearance in an explosion at the end only capped off the sense of foreboding he brought with him on the stage.
Elsewhere, an amusingly dog-like Caliban and a childlike Miranda whose innocence was fully exploited for comedy helped entertain, and a Sebastian whose constant wisecracking made his plots seem even more callous added an element of tension.
I have to confess though- I was exhausted. Having seen the Henriad the day before, and then not getting much sleep afterwards, I was very worn and found it difficult to focus. However, I don’t think this was entirely me. While the winter setting and the interesting use of tribal wedding rituals made this a very new ‘Tempest’, I found it slow-paced, with the mood of the piece very neutral- the only moment that grabbed me enormously was the bloody appearance of Ariel from a seal’s carcass, a truly horrific moment that made everyone sit up! But compared to the ‘Henry VI’ trilogy of the day before, it lacked pace and energy.
I’d like to see it again to give it another chance, with my full alertness- and there were certainly a great deal of plus points. My initial reaction, though, is a nonplussed one- I enjoyed it, certainly, but I think the RSC have done much better this year.