The Tempest is Shakespeare’s last full length play and one that is difficult to pin down. It is redemptive and romantic, comical and dramatic – and all within a mystical, magical framework that absolutely has to work. Gregory Doran’s revival for the RSC ensures that the magic is on full display and never in short supply. The visual pyrotechnics and extravagances are stunning. Happily, the story telling is crystal clear – this is a rewarding and exciting version of a difficult, but ultimately marvellous, play.

The Tempest

The first thing you see is the huge, fractured husk of the wooden sailing vessel. It dominates the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Riven in two halves, the wreckage is tall and wide, a symbol of the destruction that accompanied arrival on the island; it is also a constant reminder that the island is a prison – one with many levels.

In the opening scene, the sounds and visuals combine to create a disorienting, frightening and quite thrilling sea storm – a tangible tempest, rocked by vivid lightning strikes and pummelled by the violence of agitated wind and water. Then Prospero, quietly, but with Obi-Wan Kenobi implacability, silently quells the tumult.

Prospero summons Ariel. The odd, wiry and mercurial – quicksilver even – creature is clearly magical. But this is an Ariel like none have seen before. His presence is elusive and reflected in the heavens. As he moves onstage, he flies up above, a rush of colour and light in the realm of the heavens. He exists in more than one place. As he converses with Prospero, we see his memories, his fearful recollection of the time he was trapped in wood, forced into a different form. The magic and the meaning of the magic – bound, exultant, crystal clear.

This is Gregory Doran’s revival of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, made possible by the partnership between the RSC and The Imaginarium Studios. It is an exhilarating experience in many ways: the beauty of the verse, particularly from Propsero, Ariel, Ferdinand and Caliban; the comedy, particularly from Stephano and Trinculo, but also Caliban; the otherworld sensibility from Ariel, Caliban and the spritely ensemble; the sense of family, flawed but vital, pulsing strongly between Prospero, Miranda, Ariel and Caliban; the romantic spirit and princely poise of Ferdinand. There has never been a production of The Tempest like this one: it might not be the best production of all time, but it is one that will be long remembered and will take much to equal.

The Tempest

Doran has a particular skill when it comes to Shakespeare : clarity. Generally, his productions are models of clarity with regard to storytelling, verse and character. (The exceptions are those that feature Antony Sher.) This version of The Tempest is no exception. Despite the inherent difficulties of the text, Doran finds a way to tell a simple, occasionally brutal, but spectacular story.

The Imaginarium Studios and the vision of designer Stephen Brimson Lewis provides the meat on the bones Shakespeare specified. Mark Quartley’s Ariel wears a suit that permits the transference of images and movements to screens, so everything Quartley does has multiple effects, constant and elusive resonance. It is slightly intoxicating to behold.

But the screens are not limited to reflecting the thoughts and impulses of Ariel or conveying the majestic horror of nature’s arsenal in the opening scene; when it comes to the sequence Shakespeare wrote to tie in with the penchant for masques prevalent at the time of The Tempest‘s  premiered, The Imaginarium Studios excels. The sense of magnificence on display in the scenes surrounding Ferdinand’s wooing of Miranda are overwhelming – the peacock feather background is particularly enchanting.

What is most satisfying about the contribution of The Imaginarium Studios is that it all dovetails perfectly with Shakespeare’s vision. The visual contribution never overwhelms either word or story; but it always complements action and sound. The sense of fear created by the projections of marauding red dogs unleashed in the second half is as tangible as the sense of lustrous maternal benevolence that wafts over everything in the peacock green ebullience of the Iris/Ceres/Juno scenes in Act Four.

The Tempest

On the acting side, the key to Doran’s vision is the triangle of Prospero, Ariel and Caliban. Simon Russell Beale is magnificent as Prospero, his mellifluous tones extracting every ounce of pain and pleasure from the verse. Each phrase is carefully measured, beautifully modulated. This is a Prospero for all seasons – he is sentimental, wise, brazen, deceptive, quixotic, vengeful, fatherly, bitter, kind and remorseful. Dignity impales every move, every nuance.

Unusually, Beale’s Prospero is a fatherly figure to each of Miranda, Caliban and Ariel – as well as Ferdinand, in the end. The sense of familial ties that Beale brings to the machinations on his island prison is palpable and it immeasurably enriches this vision of The Tempest. Unusually, the strongest tie here is between Prospero and Quartley’s Ariel, with the jealous almost-sibling rivalry between Caliban and Ariel leading to the second strongest Prospero tie. Miranda comes a pale third in this Propsero’s immediate attentions.

Partly, that is because of Propsero’s fatherly/predatory views towards Miranda. Beale plays that horror right down the line, but does not overegg the pudding. Many things torture this Prospero and Beale permits all of that to bubble to the surface and occasionally splash – hard. All of these moments are finely judged and for all that the production has extraordinary visual bells and whistles, the road to Propsero’s soul is unadorned, simple and direct. It relies upon Beale’s intellect and vocal dynamism – and he delivers in spades.

Quartley’s Ariel is elegant, feral and engaging. He uses his lithe physicality to great advantage: rather like Peter Pan’s shadow, Quartley’s Ariel seems to suddenly appear from nowhere, emerge from the shadows, coalesce from reflections, dance on a moonbeam. Quartley establishes a bond with Caliban (actually, they both do that) – they are brothers of a kind, but the kind is not clear. This makes everything that happens between each of them have extra meaning – and, indeed, their fates seem more melancholy as a result.

The TempestWhen Prospero releases Ariel, at the end of the play, Ariel’s misery is heartbreaking. Quartley is exceptional throughout, never playing for effect, only truth – but always scoring emotional sincerity. He obeys Prospero willingly, adoringly almost; there is little rebellion in his portrayal. So his eventual release, when Prospero elects to return to Milan, comes as an unwelcome freedom, a distressed abandonment. It’s a truly beautiful and finely tuned performance from Quartley.

Joe Dixon’s Caliban is remarkably effective. Like a wounded, beaten, but loyal dog, Dixon’s Caliban is desperate for love and attention. He plays the comedy beautifully, and his introduction to the excesses of alcohol is smartly done. His height and exposed backbone contribute to the sense of awkward abandonment that enfolds this Caliban. Misunderstood rather than evil or capricious, there is real joy when Caliban takes Propsero’s broken staff and takes possession of Prospero’s abandoned cell.

As Miranda, Jenny Rainsford does not really match the level of skill and detail to which her fellows ascend. Miranda needs to be the most beautiful presence on the island prison; she needs to be obviously young and endlessly enchanting. Rainsford’s much too modern sensibility cuts across that possibility; she is harsh when she should be supple and radiant. It is not really clear why Prospero, Caliban and Ferdinand are all intoxicated (to varying degrees) by Rainsford’s Miranda and that is a troubling deficiency.

Rainsford is helped enormously by Daniel Easton’s virile, sensitive and winning Ferdinand. Easton is terrific in every respect, imbuing Ferdinand with a heroic, princely sincerity which seduces first Miranda and then everyone else. He handles the verse with assiduous skill and his lovesick devotion to Miranda improves her immeasurably. It is impossible not to want this Miranda and Ferdinand to waltz into eternity together.

The Tempest

The roles of Trincolo and Stephano can be pointlessly unfunny, as the Donmar Warehouse version of The Tempest so incisively demonstrates. But here, Doran mines real comic joy. Simon Trinder and Tony Jayawardena find a unique and genuinely delightful way to extract humour from the roles: the trio of urinating fellows at the commencement of the second half of this production was an inspired touch.

Where the production goes slightly off the rails is in the matter of the newly shipwrecked Milanese Court. None of the performers here match the level of complexity and interest attained by those trapped on Propsero’s island or the comedy duo of Trincolo and Stephano. None can be heard above the waves of the tempestuous fury when the play opens; indeed, even when they can be heard, there is not the flair exhibited that the other scenes attract.

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Still, these actors all tell the story clearly enough. It’s just that their scenes are not as fascinating or involving as the others.

Propsero’s final speech is a special moment in the evening. Simon Spencer’s lighting plot changes the sense of the moment entirely, allowing Beale to walk a double line: he plays Prospero’s final moments as well as, extraordinarily, summoning up the notion of Shakespeare speaking directly to the audience. It’s brilliant and remarkable.

The Tempest

Doran’s use of the ensemble is also inspired. They play various roles, but imbue everything they do with splendid commitment. Whether it be dancing or duelling, this team matches the principal cast in terms of commitment and execution. The stately dances, in particular, are marvellous.

Elly Condron’s Iris, Jennifer Witton’s Juno and Samantha Hay’s Ceres all do excellent work in the masque sequences involving Ferdanind and Miranda and their future. The vocal work, the physical work these three employ is delicious.

There is marvellous original music from Paul Englishby and Lucy Cullingford provides choreography that would suit a musical but does not remotely seem out of place in this context. Finn Ross’ clever videos and Spencer’s lighting ice the visual and aural cakes here: rewarding work in every way.

The Tempest is a masterwork, one that can resonate in many different ways. Doran makes it primarily joyful, but the rancorous underbelly, the tangible gloom, is never ignored. This is a complex and wondrous vision of Shakespeare’s finale – worthwhile in every way.

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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.