25 February 2007

The Tempest, Novello Theatre, 22nd February 2007

I would like to start this entry by thanking the man sitting in front of me for bobbing up and down and shifting in his seat constantly, ensuring that most of the stage was hidden by his fat head. I would also like to sincerely thank the large party of students for rattling notebooks, clicking pens, eating, drinking, playing with their mobile phones, rummaging through their bags and discussing the action loudly throughout the entire play.

The opening scene of this was brilliantly realised. Rather than showing the usual deck of the beleaguered sailing ship, what we got was a claustrophobic radio room below deck, glimpsed through a cut cloth, which began by displaying a ship’s radio on which a storm warning was being broadcast. The radio vanished to be replaced by grainy, crashing waves – the speaker of the radio became the porthole through which the audience saw the crew, vomiting, panicking and struggling to control the ship. For this was no ordinary tropical island shipwreck, but a wreck foundering on some windswept, ice-floe strewn arctic coast. Nice idea, I thought, but it did rather make a mockery of the play’s pastoral imagery – “Come unto these yellow sands”, for instance, rather goes for nothing when its being sung on an iceberg, as does "Where the bee sucks, there suck I" - cue for sniggers from the puerile students behind me. Apart from the interior of Prospero’s hut, this was the only set we got, which was a disappointment as, if every scene is played on the same set, it does rather spoil the idea of the dislocation of the various stranded parties washed up at different places around the island. And I failed to understand why, after the interval, the peak of the iceberg was decorated by Prospero’s hut (upside down, no less). Maybe the director was making a “Wizard of Oz” reference? You tell me. I did like the idea of a “screen wipe” between scenes – a curtain with a whirling blizzard projected on it sweeping across the stage as if to clear away all traces of the humans marooned on the island.

None of the rest of the play really delivered the promise of the opening scene. Projection was, more or less across the board, risible. What is going on at the RSC these days? Very few of the predominately young cast had any idea of how to make their voices reach the back of the balcony. Even the great Patrick Stewart (gasp!) was barely audible for the first half hour. Given that this scene details Prospero’s “back story” and his reasons for creating the tempest and bringing the ship to the island in the first place, it may well have made it very hard going for those not familiar with the play. Mariah Gale, as Miranda (here played as some kind of bouncy Eskimo Nell ingĂ©nue), just couldn’t be heard full stop. Craig Gazey, as Trinculo, was perfectly audible – but I’d far rather he hadn’t been, because he was bloody awful, with absolutely no idea of how to put a character across without going into stereotyped mugging and waving his hands around like a demented windmill. Still, having read his tiny biography in the programme, its not surprising, him having only ever appeared in three other plays and The Bill. What’s the point of putting such an inexperienced actor in such a large role? And did the director think “Oh, need people to laugh at this character. Rather than make him give his lines in an amusing way, it would be much easier to get an actor with a regional accent. Always good for a laugh, someone from Swansea”? Much better had the part been played by James Hayes (giving an authoritative Gonzalo but really rather wasted). I did like the idea of little frying pans being used as extemporised snowshoes.

The director’s conception of Ariel was totally bizarre. His height and gauntness pointed up with a dark grey floor length, high collared coat and with pale make up heightened at all times by an ice white spotlight trained on his shaved head, Julian Bleach was only missing the long claws and pointy teeth to be a dead spit of Nosferato, creeping about the stage like some arctic Uriah Heap. The only point when he assumed a believable “angry spirit” was during the “You are three men of sin” speech – mind you, having him burst out of the belly of a dead seal, with scary Freddy Kruger-like skeletal wings was a brilliant piece of theatrical invention. If only we could have heard what the rest of the cast on stage were muttering about at this point, it would have been the best scene in the show – not difficult, given that many of the scenes were played sooooooo slowly, with lots of long pauses, that I began to wonder if this was an adaptation by Pinter.

John Light gave an odd portrayal of Caliban –playing the role with all the savagery of a sausage, and if you can’t imagine a savage sausage, that’s because sausages are not known for their inherent savagery. He seemed to me more bemused than savage. Given the setting, why not portray him as an Eskimo? Or was the director worried that this might be construed as implying that Eskimos (sorry, the indigenous Inuit peoples of the Arctic Circle) are savages?

The great Patrick Stewart (yes, Prospero-Luc Picard himself) seemed rather adrift from the rest of the cast, and indeed the play itself, most of the time, looking and sounding out of place among a young and inexperienced cast, like a thoroughbred horse surrounded by glue-factory fodder. Mind you, like the great Judi, some people are just so interesting that you can happily watch them doing nothing and still find it absorbing. Clive did wonder in the interval whether he has it written into all his contracts that he has to get his tits out in every production. Odd that, given the importance of Prospero’s staff, Stewart was only given it to hold in the very last scene. And the fantastic, strange hooded coat he wore for his first entrance should have been used far more.

Very odd idea getting rid of the masque and replacing it with some kind of Inuit marriage ceremony, apparently conducted by three Fiji Islanders who appeared out of Miranda’s bunk (cue plenty of nudge nudge wink wink comments from the students in the row behind). Still, this was an odd production altogether, one which never really fulfilled the promise of the opening scene in the hold of the ship. In essence, this was a play full of good new ideas, utterly ruined by the inexperience of most of the cast. Maybe I would have enjoyed it more had Shakespeare’s play not come with added sound effects and background noise supplied by those effing students.