Special effects by God are one thing when they are limited to the sound of heavy rain drumming upon a theatre roof; when the venue is open to the elements as Shakespeare's Globe, The Tempest becomes all too literal. Sailors genuinely slip and slide across the stage in the opening scene as Geraldine Alexander's Ariel orchestrates the storm; Jasper Britton's enraged Caliban interrupts his invocation of "All the diseases that the sun sucks up" to give a disgruntled, sarcastic grunt after "sun"; the groundlings in their white, bin-liner-like rain-capes feel a rooted empathy with Trinculo's desire to shelter from "yond same black cloud, yond huge one". Not to put too fine a point on it, I did not see Lenka Udovicki's production under the best of circumstances.
Vanessa Redgrave's Prospero may be cursed with the most difficult-to-place accent I have heard in years (Scots? Newfoundland? My own homeland of Ireland? Who can tell from vowel to vowel?), but her characterisation is illuminating. This is a Prospero who plainly never had great social skills even before his overthrow and exile; who tells the story of same, not to the listening Miranda, but half to himself, half to an invisible or imagined audience; and whose interactions first with Ferdinand then with the rest of the shipwrecked nobles show plainly that he is labouring even to create the illusion that he is actually relating to other people. Alexander's Ariel is similarly detached, looking past or through those around her as she acts not with coldness but with utterly neutral dispassion. In such an atmosphere of solitary otherworldliness, it is no surprise that the masque sequence is here not an entertainment for Ferdinand and Miranda so much as a rite to bestow upon their union a formalised blessing.
Elsewhere on the island, Sam Park's Sebastian and Martin Turner's Antonio seem attenuated in both their derisive and their villainous antipathy towards the other nobles. As the other would-be usurper, drunken butler Stefano, however, Steffan Rhodri has a wonderfully grandiose Cambrian swagger, ably supported by Steven Alvey's more diffident but still capering Trinculo. Britton, unrecognisable as Caliban beneath a layer of mud, grime and assorted cranial nodules, is simply magnificent, whether subordinating himself to the drunkards, drumming up audience participation ("Just like that, but more scary," he opines mournfully of one punter's timid contribution) or discovering a final, contrite dignity opposite the merciful Prospero who at the last shakes his hand. Presumably the whole thing is even better without the splashing and squelching.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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