Shakespeare’s The Tempest has enjoyed a continuous performance history since its debut at Whitehall in 1611, though often in much altered, even bowdlerised, form. In recent decades too it has been a play that has experienced very strong directorial steers. Sometimes we have seen an emphasis on pure magic, with Prospero as imperious magus and sophisticated manipulator of all he surveys; sometimes the aspect of colonial exploitation has been uppermost; in others it is the family relationships between fathers and children or brothers that seem most prominent; while the themes of revenge and reconciliation, and the beauty and fearful power of nature have also had their advocates. It’s even been played as Shakespeare’s own specific farewell to the theatre. Like Hamlet it is one of those plays on which most people have a decided ‘view’ and no production is likely to satisfy everyone all of the time or compass all the possibilities.

However, no production will succeed at all without two basic emphases which are often quite difficult to synchronise. There needs to be a thoroughly invested attention to textual detail in a play where the imagery is often astonishingly dense and there are no wasted scenes or padded speeches. Every exchange needs to register with the audience, and every image needs time to marinade in the mind, while still moving forward in a variety of plausible tempi. At the same time it has to be visually and aurally astonishing, so that by stage alchemy the magic of the island and its lord and creatures are thrown at the senses of the audience, and the power of music and pageant and ceremony are felt with eerie majesty.

This is a tall order, and, it is tempting to say, one that is perhaps more naturally suited now to the world of film and multimedia special effects. Yet for many, Prospero’s Books was only one kind of answer, and it is the great virtue of Dominic Dromgoole’s new production at the Wanamaker that we are made to appreciate just how much can be done by using merely or mostly the resources available to the King’s Men in Shakespeare’s own day.

Many of these virtues are in evidence in the opening scene, which has to start with an effective and impressive storm. A drum roll from the musicians sets us off, and a model of a ship in distress is spot-lit mid-stage conjured by Prospero (Tim McMullan). A lantern swings wildly as the boatswain and his royal passengers reel across the deck, and down its rope comes Ariel (Pippa Nixon) enabling nature’s disorder. We are drawn straight into the interplay of characters, every word is clearly audible, and there are some lovely antiphonal effects as Ariel’s words are echoed by actors placed all around the theatre.

One of the lessons, not just of this production but also of its predecessor here, The Winter’s Tale, is that traditional performance practice makes particularly lucid sense of the sections of the Late Romances that often seem least convincing under the proscenium arch of a conventional theatre. To my mind the recognition scenes and elaborate fantasy pageants and revels that are important in both seem flimsy and lacking in conviction even when joined up to the most technically spectacular of modern special effects. But here, using much simpler means together with some lovely word-painting these scenes manage all the same to astonish. Less is more, as usual, when choreography and music are apt and precise and the mythological parts are played with real conviction, not for bravura show. Just as the revelation of Hermione’s statue had never moved and gripped me before, so too the various entertainments summoned up by Prospero had never hitherto grabbed my attention as they need to.

One can go further and say that it is in ‘gentler’ rather than ‘rough’ magic that this production excels. There is an endearing quality to all the scenes, with exquisite touches of human detail and spritely fantasy, working with many fresh pointings of familiar texts. The relationships between Prospero and Miranda, Prospero and Ariel, Miranda and Ferdinand, and Gonzalo and the other nobles are beautifully developed: the affectionate bonds are demonstrated in action and movement as much as through text, with Dromgoole giving us plenty of visual stimulus when the textual delivery is slow and deliberate and vice versa. For example, at the end of the scene when Miranda laments Ferdinand’s labour fetching logs, their coming together is beautifully encapsulated by the way she snatches up the last log and carries it off herself.

There is one drawback to this approach and that is the lack of genuine menace. McMullan has a strong natural presence and wonderfully sonorous voice which is capable of any resonance; but while one felt Prospero’s authority there was less sense of the ungovernable rage and resentment at his treatment that bursts forth in that wholly remarkable soliloquy, ‘Ye elves and hills’. Prospero needs also to be a genuinely alarming figure whose forgiveness and relinquishing of revenge cannot be taken for granted by any means. Were the compass more aligned in the direction of ‘rough magic’, were Prospero less of a cuddly reincarnation of James Robertson Justice, then some of the other aspects of the play would come into sharper focus – the parallel malevolence of Sebastian and Antonio, the crucial role Miranda plays in reconciling her experience of a ‘brave new world’ with her father’s disdain for a tainted world, and the simmering resentments of Caliban. There needs to be a real struggle.

Still there was a fine level of performance across all the major roles: innocence is often hard to make interesting, but Phoebe Price played Miranda with a natural grace and strength that carried conviction. Opposite her Dharmash Patel took his opportunities well, and among the washed-up nobility Joseph Marcell’s Gonzalo struck the right balance between tiresome Polonius and honest Kent and registered his important commentary on events.

Otherwise it is hard to fault this production. Full use is made of the natural candle light of the chandeliers and the modest forces of wind, percussion and strings provided suitable soft underscoring and clamorous outbursts as needed. Stephen Warbeck’s setting of some of the famous songs was empathetic and assisted the delivery of the verse. Costume was broadly in period, and mostly sober suited, with flecks of magnificence when required. The choreography of Sian Williams made the stage seem larger than it is, and offered full variety of formality and roistering.

We are used to seeing the comedy scenes played for all they are worth at the Globe, and in this production the trio of Caliban (Fisayo Akinade), Stephano (Trevor Fox) and Trinculo (Dominic Rowan) were technically exceptional, and genuinely funny too, which is certainly not always the case. They tastefully blended the text with a degree of verbal improvisation that made the jokes more legible to a modern audience. Only the most pedantic purist could have objected. It is rare to see the accumulating effects of drunkenness played so skilfully, and Rowan in particular stood out for the John Cleese-like precision of his deadpan delivery and timing.

Dromgoole’s tenure at the Globe ends with this production which bears all the hallmarks of what has been a hugely successful decade of development both commercial and artistic – with an attention to traditional theatrical virtues alongside openness to an international diversity of approaches to Shakespeare. His greatest achievement is the Wanamaker theatre itself which continues in each fresh production to reveal new layers of wonder and mystery in plays we thought we knew so well. ‘Back to the Future’, indeed…
Four stars

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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…