March 20, 2007, by Peter Kirwan

The Tempest (RSC) @ The Novello Theatre

I’ve been very unfair to this production of ‘The Tempest’. I’ve seen it twice before, but the first time I was distracted for personal reasons, and the second we were severely late, so I’ve never been in a position to sit down and simply enjoy it. Last night remedied that, in an evening that made me eat a bit of humble pie. I thorougly enjoyed last night’s performance, and saw much in it that convinces me it’s one of the best ‘Tempests’ of recent years.

Not that my earlier criticisms were necessarily wrong, of course. Craig Gazey is still a highly irritating Trinculo, seemingly designed entirely to appeal to the kids in the audience, with an horrifically artificial performance that completely disappoints after his excellent performances in ‘Julius Caesar’ and particularly ‘Antony and Cleopatra’. He isn’t bad, per se, so much as seeming to be acting in an entirely different play. The production suffers badly in terms of pace as well- an opening that I still believe is far too static (note, please, how the lights of the ship swing about madly, yet the actors stand casually on the deck talking about the storm, not even swaying until a sound cue reminds them to lurch to the sides) leads into a series of slow-moving scenes that simply do not engage.

Until, that is, Julian Bleach appears. In what I honestly feel is the most exciting, innovative, daring and spellbinding performance of the entire Festival (out of the fifty-two productions I’ve seen so far!), Bleach completely redefines the part. Inhuman, terrifying and all-powerful, his Ariel stalks the stage with grace and attitude, manipulating events effortlessly despite his constant torment. He seemed constantly ready to turn on his master, yet his “Do you love me?” was heartbreaking in its sincerity. His cracked singing drew on the rawest emotions, and his final disappearance into a ball of flame is a fitting end. This is Ariel’s ‘Tempest’, rearranged to emphasise his appearances, and it is no surprise that London’s publicity material has featured his portrait almost as prominently as Patrick Stewart’s. His emergence from the bloody seal is one of the most important moments of the year, and his performance one of the greatest. Simply astounding.

Elsewhere, I appreciated John Light’s energetic and subjugated Caliban far more this time round, and was particularly impressed with his athleticism. Ken Bones was as excellent as ever, and John Hopkins stood out more this time around as a witty and nervy Sebastian, almost more evil than his companion.

Patrick Stewart, lastly, really captivated me this time. The insecurities, weaknesses and subtleties he brings out of the character go a long way to humanising Prospero, yet he remained powerful throughout. Much credit must go to Rupert Goold for his direction and setting of the play, that allow Prospero to be a working man in trousers and warm clothes, as practical as he is magical. Ultimately, though, it is down to Stewart to prove why he is so highly regarded, and his performance is a triumph. Unlike ‘Much Ado’ and ‘Antony’, which both suffered in their transition to the London stage, ‘The Tempest’ has only bettered with time.

Posted in Theatre review