Iain Mackay as the deposed Duke, sorcerer Prospero

Music review

The Tempest

Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham Hippodrome


THERE is probably a good reason why there has never been a full length ballet of The Tempest – it is a near impossible tale to tell in dance bereft of Shakespeare’s masterful words.

There is sibling rivalry, power struggles, a sorcerer, a mischievous spirit, a nasty, deformed son of a witch, storms, shipwrecks, romance between warring families (seem familiar?) and finally redemption – with enough fairies and sprites to shake a stick at.

Birmingham Royal Ballet director David Bintley has had Shakespeare’s last play in his mind since 1982 and finally, with music he commissioned  from Sally Beamish, it has arrived as the finale of BRB’s Shakespeare season to mark the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death.

Bintley has cleverly not attempted to tell the complex tale in its entirety but instead opens after Prospero has been stranded on an island with his daughter Miranda for 12 years, and is now controlling everything and everyone by his well-honed magical powers.

His ballet starts with the Tempest, conjured up by Prospero, which drives a ship on to the island, a ship carrying Alonso, King of Naples, his son Ferdinand, brother Sebastian and Antonio, Duke of Milan, who had taken the title from his brother Prospero with the connivance of the King.

Iain Mackay is imperious, as always, as Prospero, the deposed duke, in a role which sees him as a sort of pirate king in Act 1 with a touch of the DrosselmeyersMiranda and Ferdiand from The Nutcracker in Act 2 as he conjures up a masque and introduces a series of dances ending with a marriage of his daughter Miranda and the now pardoned Ferdinand..

Mackay has developed that ability last seen with Robert Parker to send that ripple of anticipation through the audience whenever he appears.

Jenna Roberts a Miranda is a delight, girlish, innocent and appearing so happy to be dancing with an equally cheerful Ferdinand, danced by Joseph Caley, all smiles and affection from the pair making it a joy to watch.

Jenna Roberts as Miranda and Joseph Caley as Ferdinand

Their pas de deux upon their first meeting is one of the highlights. Not that it ends well, mind, with Prospero debilitating the tale’s romantic lead with mixed bag of magic.

Caley has to cope with some complex flying as well, tumbling in his harness, not the most comfortable of operations.

Dominic Antonucci, former Principal and Ballet Master at BRB for the past seven years, showed he has still got it when he donned his thigh high dancing boots to become the baddy Antonio.

And baddy hardly describes the bloke. He not only usurps his brother but persuades Sebastian danced by Lewis Turner, to do in his brother, the King of Naples, danced by senior ballet baster, Michael O’Hare, as he sleeps, and the pair are only stopped, swords poised by Prospero’s sprite Ariel. It’s a nicely, quietly evil performance. Antonio seems to be the sort of bloke who could stab you in the back while shaking your hand. Potential as management or a banker.

Ariel, looking much like Legolas from The Lord of The Rings movie, is danced delightfully with the required sprite-like lightness by Mathias Dingman, with more amusing mischief than the malevolence seen in the play, and while we are on film characters we mustn’t forget Caliban.

Caliban is the aforementioned deformed son of an evil witch, who ruled the island before Prospero arrived – not difficult as he was the only human inhabitant, but hey, he was still the man – but he is now Prospero’s slave and looks remarkably like Rambo.

Danced by Tyrone Singleton he provides a splendid comic element with the king’s jester Trinculo, danced by James Barton, and his friend, the drunken butler, Stephano, danced by Valentin Olovyannikov, who had been shipwrecked with their masters.

Their drunken and funny antics as they set off on a plan to kill Prospero to free new best friend Caliban from his life of servitude runs into trouble almost immediately as they are waylaid by first booze then a dressing up box left purposely by Prospero, and then after trying on the costumes, the plan is all but ended by Prospero’s spirits appearing in the form of hunting hounds.

There are some solo performances worth a mention with Céline Gittens, Yvette Knight and Delia Mathews as goddesses Ceres, goddess of harvest, Iris, air and Juno, marriage. Mathews, who arrives on a flying peacock as Juno, also danced Prospera, Prospero’s wife while Knight excelled with some prolonged, precision pointe work.

Lachlan Monaghan enjoyed himself as Neptune while Tzu-Chao Chou seems happy a Pan, and why would the god of wine and revelry not be happy?

Bintley manages to incorporate all the major characters of the play apart from Gonzalo, who only really has any significance when Prospero and Miranda are set adrift at the start of the play, a section which does not appear in the ballet, with the taking of the title by Antonio only shown in a dream sequence with Miranda then a three-year-old, using a very effective puppet.

The ballet starts all at sea, with a golden ship in a stormy sea with the sound of waves and wind and Ariel appearing as the ship flounders and the ballet opens with a shipwreck, and to be honest if you don’t know the play at all you will still be all at sea two hours 15 minutes later.

This is one where if you haven't a clue about The Tempest, you either read a synopsis of the play before you set out, the best option, or leave enough time to read the synopsis in the programme, without it there is very little narrative to follow. You will see characters but not connections and scenes will be dramatic, romantic, pretty or funny, without the benefit of context.

With some knowledge you can see how Bintley has set the ballet entirely on the island, fitting elements of the play into dreams to tell the story out of sequence, and with that knowledge the whole thing becomes easier to follow.

The Sally Beamish score might not have themes you will hear in your mind for days to come, perhaps that comes with familiarity, but it is pleasant, tuneful, and as one person said, it is very listenable, and, as always, The Royal Ballet Sinfonia, under Koen Kessels, give the music full justice, a class act in their own right.

Rae Smith’s designs are simple but oh so effective, relying on Bruno Poet’s sympathic lighting  to provide mood and atmosphere. There is one wonderful sequence when stage wide billowing gassamer thin sheets overlap and swirl to create giant waves breaking and rolling in a stormy ocean. It is just fascinating to watch, a ballet on its own.

The Tempest is a complex play with so many shades and themes which rely on words and emphasis so for David Bintley to have reduced it to a simple tale of love and redemption, with a few sprites and a bit of magic thrown in, yet kept the essence of the play is a remarkable job and it certainly deserves its place in BRB’s repertoire. To 08-10-16

Roger Clarke



The Tempest, a co-production with Houston Ballet Foundation in Texas heads off on tour to  Sadler's Wells 020 7863 8000 13-15 October, Sunderland Empire 0844 871 3022, 20-22 October, and Theatre Royal, Plymouth, 01752 267222 27-29 October.

It will then make its USA debut at Houston Ballet on 25 may, 2017.

BRB  Tickets  


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