Jessica Rhodes as Miranda and Alex Kingston Prospero. Pictures: Ikin Yum

The Tempest

Royal Shakespeare Company



I have to confess a certain initial doubt, even trepidation – perhaps others did too - at the teasing casting of the RSC’s latest staging of The Tempest.

Cross-dressing. Had this a dramatic purpose? Was it ingenious, and inspired? Did it add a lot? Was it perhaps valuably challenging? Or, conversely, provocative.

Ariel was played, frightfully adroitly, by Heledd Gwynn. She had alacrity, a Puckish if not indisputably Arielish vivacity and dexterity. True, when she moves, it alternates fractional stolidity with the unearthly sprite’s essential fragility. Yet her deference, and demure posture, in the face of a not so much stern and prescriptive as bullying taskmaster (or taskmistress) is indescribably touching. Half a mile better than Simon Russell Beale’s miscast outing.

The rankle begins early: (‘How now, moody?’) And when her (his) resentment explodes (just once unnervingly), you perceive that the (not so) little sprite is not just air (“and to the air be free”), but has steel. If Caliban inherits the island, will Ariel be left without purpose?

Her songs were touching, too, and alive in Director Elizabeth Freestone’s (and Movement Director Adrienne Quartly’s) conception. Michael Tippett composed three electrifying ‘Songs for Ariel’ which have all the delicacy of Shakespeare’s sprite. There were of course Thomas Arne’s amazingly lithe settings too. Is the music Ariel was given to sing here in any way striking? Well, yes and no. As a solo with simply an accompanying alto – almost a tenor - flute (which Ariel rather movingly purports to play) some are indeed exquisite (and beautifully intoned by Gwynn).  

But the music as a whole (Adrienne Quartly) alternates, a bit like a sprite, between the effective and the empty. Some is pretty naff – not least a supposedly crowd-pleasing burst into Musical near the close. The great success, rather than the five-finger exercise type stuff that permeates the background, is in the instrumentation, which is inspired: most prominent are the drums, used with a finesse rather than  pounding (Tim Farmer) and the percussion (Kevin Waterman): if the aerial passages cry out for a celesta (could leader capable Jack Hopkins’ keyboard ape one?) that magical feeling comes above all from Waterman’s subtle twinkling, flickering and sparkling. Adam Cross’s woodwind even includes what seems, at one Ariel moment, a bass clarinet. We could have used more of that. 

But back to the point. Gonzalo, Sebastian, Trinculo are all played by women. Would it be sexism to raise an eyebrow at this? What would we feel if a man was cast as Ophelia, Imogen, Desdemona? Yet let us hasten to the defence. It’s exactly what Mark Rylance achieves so miraculously as Olivia in Shakespeare’s Globe’s Twelfth Night. Teenage boys (or even youths) played all the Gertrudes and Rosalinds and Katharinas in Shakespeare’s, Lyly’s and Ben Jonson’s day – the last decade of the 16th and first of the 17th centuries.The RSC’s 2019 King John absolutely triumphed with Rosie Sheehy as the increasingly harassed monarch. (S)he didn’t order Prince Arthur’s murder, but you imagined he could have done.

A male role wouldn’t faze, say, Fiona Shaw, or even Helen Mirren (who herself played Prospero in the 2010 film, with Ben Whishaw a magical Ariel), any more than it does Alex Kingston, who here plays Prospero with utter assurance, wisdom, considerable range, often daring, and at times (in her great speeches/soliloquies:‘ We are such stuff as dreams are made of’ perhaps a fraction lost - did music steal it?) or the galvanising 25-line speech, longer by far than the frequently tedious fractured spiel in Act I where Prospero abjures his magic ‘Ye elves of brooks’ – here absolutely stunning and faultless: could one imagine better? Or Prospero’s wondrous, disarming finale, spoken frontstage directly to the audience, ‘And my ending is despair, unless I be relieved by prayer’ - almost tear-jerking. Kingston’s speaking is so engaging, so lucid, it makes up for any needling reservation one might tack on. 


Jamie Ballard (Antonio), Peter De Jersey (Alonso), Grace Cookey-Gam (Sebastian)

The thing that sticks in the gut, or maybe could, is that Prospero is actually played as a woman: ‘my mother’. Mirren was ‘Prospera’; but very Prosperoish. Kingston (and Freestone) are unafraid to stick their necks above the parapet and present her as a woman. There are stages when this feels at odds with the text, and with the personality Shakespeare contrives.

But there were some real bonuses. For instance, that initial batch of diatribes are brought vividly to life by the moves of Prospero and Miranda. It’s not as if Prospero is twirling her daughter around on a leash. Instead, one of the very best ideas in this production, it’s a riveting opportunity for the girl to establish, unusually, her fast-growing independence, and for Prospero to learn unexpectedly the first diminishing of her power (‘And what strength I have’s mine own; which is most faint…’.

Another way by which Kingston impacts is by those silences – moments when her words hang in the air – by which she manages, quite often, to supply an inflection totally original. This use of pauses, or outright silence, to beef up the surrounding text, is one of the notable pluses of the cast’s delivery throughout, and by several characters (Caliban not least). Kingston seems unsure whether she’s from Millan or MilAn, but it doesn’t jar particularly.    

Whether The Tempest could survive without the funnies is arguable: you’d think they were there for the peasantry in the Globe’s audience, if it was staged there (or at the Blackfriars’, noted for its boy actors) before its Royal premiere. Yet with Inigo Jones (set) and two tip-top musicians, Robert Johnson and Antonio Ferrabosco involved, it does seem to have been devised (1611) primarily for King James.

Freestone’s production is riddled with not just clever but often brilliant touches. And they often come in little bursts. Miranda’s brilliant crumble, a downward twiddle in an instant (‘Thou art inclined to sleep’), was a giggle: pure, joyous slapstick. Ferdinand’s ‘For thy sake am I this patient’ (instantly followed by ‘Do you love me?’ – what a juxtaposition) was as funny as I’ve heard.

The cavorting with the gaberdine is of course much merriment (‘a very ancient and fish-like smell’…’misery acquaints a man (girl) with strange bedfellows.’)  Cath Whitefield pulled off Trinculo with appealing vulnerability. He doesn’t do much jesting here, and hasn’t the nerve of Lear’s fool (no Rigoletto). He always plays second, or even third, fiddle. It isn’t a Trinculo that, after that first endlessly entertaining sequence, imprints itself upon you. But it was very competent; and invited sympathy.

Simon Startin’s bombastic Stephano (he is, after all, a butler – read vintner) sets off as merely a slightly pissed, robust bully; but as he gets pisseder, takes over the comedy and scores time and again.

The messing around with plastic bottles that look as if brimful of urine grows wearisome; but by the time they all emerge from the ‘mire’ (Trinculo: ‘Monster, I do smell all horse-piss’, Stephano, besmeared all over, including bizarre underpants, in more like cow-dung; or his chastened ‘I am not Stephano, but a cramp,’ we have been treated to a stack of chortles and sniggers along the way.

Their songs (music a success) were raucous, and splendid. The footlicking was funny(ish). The business with the clothes line (‘Put off that gown, Trinculo’) accentuated by the vividness of Tom Piper’s mock-gilt clothing designs is a big laugh (Stephano ludicrous as the self-appointed ‘king’).   

But praise apart, now may be the moment to groan about Piper’s set design. After all, he is a master of his art (Operas not least). We are faced at the start – how right – by a massive dark ship’s prow (and other bits: it’s busticated); Good idea. Except that, first, the entire shipwreck scene is acted out on stage, if you can call it acting, with a lot of rushing and twirling around that looks wholly unconvincing.

But what matters is, while to introduce Prospero and Miranda, the ship should ingeniously collapse and we be faced with a wholly different, island, setting. The increasingly tedious flat stage, seriously constricted, is at the rear (apart from some pathetic exits: caves? rocks? littered with bric-a-brac, some of which acquires fragmentary use, some not.

Despite the spectacular, glowering, almost monstrous ship (and a cheer for the construction team), upper levels are scarcely contrived at all: a half-cock ladder, a couple of attenuated appearances above (e.g., briefly, Ferdinand and Miranda). What on earth is the point? Especially when a backdrop has an almost exotically beautiful green forest, not used, or used to no end?

I have to admit Tommy Sim’aan’s Caliban never quite convinces. He gives an heroic performance, puts all of himself into it, and speaks eloquently and sometimes beautifully, as Caliban must (‘Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments Will hum about mine ears…’). And he curses (as in his first speech) wonderfully grudgingly and convincingly

When he pleads desperately, with instinctive suspicion, to the other pair not to be diverted by the clothes rail (‘We shall lose our time, and all be turn’d to barnacles, or to apes’ it is actually endearing – again, an important quality for a Caliban. Sima’an is a joy to listen to: exemplary, possibly. But somehow his Caliban is more man than monster. We need some politically incorrect parody here, and it is played rather bit straight. The first professional Calibans I saw (after a brilliant, genuinely monstrous Patrick Barlow) was Roy Dotrice. His slithering, part Lear’s Poor Tom, part scaly serpent, was a real Caliban.

One of the production’s huge, possibly unexpected, triumphs was the Masque. So prim and feebly courtly it can seem, that many Directors prefer to omit it; or alternatively, admittedly, devise some often ingenious alternative ‘event’. Freestone’s willingness to go for it, to the letter, paid off magnificently. All three (Iris, Ceres/Demeter, then Juno -n Natalia Campbell, Imogen Slaughter Liz Jadav) spoke delightfully: for any schoolchild present (there were a few), a model of enunciation.


Alex Kingston as Prospero and Heledd Gwynn as Ariel

Even lines like ‘Thy turfy mountains, where live nibbling sheep’ (almost Homeric), ‘My bosky acres, and my unshrubb’d down’ or ‘Honour, riches, marriage-blessing Long continuance, and increasing’ ring perfectly true, not parodiable, in this staging. ‘Hymen’s torch’ is what this all about: a celebration of Ferdinand and Miranda’s nuptials – and future conjunction (‘But if thou dost break her virgin knot…’). Even Ariel’s assault on the wicked usurpers, with a horrific array of black-winged harpies, is a stunning piece of theatrical, visual éclat as well.

If Piper’s costumes here are exotic, bewitching and alluring (right down to Ceres’ ironic but wondrously apt wheatsheaf headdress), and Stefano’s in particular a howl, there is a contrary point to be made. Not that the modern-dress suits of the court are utterly dull and uninspiring. But that the ‘magic cloak’ he has given Kingston’s Prospero is frankly a bore.

It doesn’t look so much like some miraculous expression of power and control of the elements, as the common appearance of a bag-lady. The doubly boring aspect is that she wears it, scene after scene. In the moment she doffs it near the end, in grey, she looks frankly terrific, and – pareadoxically - magical: metamorphosed, having shed the tat. The idea she would keep it on throughout the Act I scene 2 with her daughter is laughable. Kingston’s acting just about gets round this problem, but only just. It is, frankly, laughable.       

The villains often get short shrift. Here too: Grace Cookey-Gam’s Sebastian is a bit of a nothing, and, to be fair, badly underdirected. Ishia Bennison’s loyal Gonzalo, a bit like a chirpy Kathryn Hunter (that’s a compliment) chattes away gamely, and fulfils her role as the court bore. Peter de Jersey’s forceful King of Naples was a pleasure, because he made of the role much more than the wet rag Alonso can often seem. This gave the dullest passages of the play some uplift. I wish the RSC’s programmes would list the past roles instead of merely the plays participated in by its casts (some do, including operas) ,which frankly tell you nothing.       

I hadn’t realised just how much Antonio, Prospero’s usurping brother, actually has to say. Having hovered around the king, as the villains must, exchanging one-liners until they begin their plotting, Jamie Ballard came superbly alive with three set pieces, ten-, twelve- and fifteen-liners, part delivered to the audience as almost a soliloquy: ‘Twenty candles That stand ‘twixt me and Milan, Candled be they, and melt ere they molest!’ It’s Antonio, not Sebastian, who sets the murder plot in motion. (Clear proof, incidentally, of how to pronounce MIlan.)

Joseph Payne’s boy, or lad, Ferdinand is delightful. Once enraptured, his eyes shine and his responses are rapt indeed. It’s actually quite hard to make much more of the role than the merely passive, but he made it more, playing up the dismay and disillusion with Prospero, ye oozing loyalty to the girl who will change his life. Truly, and believably, in love.

And the treat, the jewel of the whole cast, and the whole evening? Jessica Rhodes’ Miranda. From the very start she is alert, fearfully intelligent, fluent, elegant, eloquent. There must be many theories of how old Miranda is, but she’s clearly teenage, probably middle teens, possibly young teens. It’s often asked why Prospero has waited till now to tell her, so drearily, of their poisoned history; but one sustainable reason could be if she’s thirteen or fourteen.   Rhodes has everything one could want from a Miranda; and on every appearance, she thrills and enchants. A fabulous piece of young acting.

A mixed bag, perhaps, but there’s plenty of fun here, and quite a lot of insights. those eager to acquaint themselves with Shakespeare’s last (own, complete) play will get plenty from the experience.

Roderic Dunnett


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