Shakespeare…from last to first

Shakespeare…from last to first

I admit that I am probably rather biased when it comes to productions mounted by the Royal Shakespeare Company. After spending 18 months working with them on A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation I think it would be strange if I could view their work entirely dispassionately but in the interests of a truthful blog that’s what I intend to try and do. Although I had been to see their production of Cymbeline some months ago, that was more in the interests of completion (see below) than anything else so it had been some while since I had seen any of their work. I was, therefore, looking forward to the two productions I saw more recently with a sense of expectation.


First up was The Tempest at the Barbican. This was a rerun of the much anticipated production which premiered in Stratford upon Avon in 2016 and brought to an end the year long celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Not only had the RSC secured Simon Russell Beale as Prospero but they had decided to push technological boundaries by working with Intel and the Imaginarium Studios to create never before seen on stage special effects. Rather as the RSC had chosen Dream specifically to work to incorporate amateur actors, so this play was the clear choice to produce a stage picture which owed much to the masques of the Jacobean era with their use of visual spectacle and “magic.” The play opened with a huge storm at sea and some interesting projection made the carcass of the ship (the production’s setting) sway from side to side. Food appeared and as suddenly disappeared on a banqueting table. Highly coloured moving backdrops gave depth to the song of the goddesses. Central to all this visual splendour was the character of Ariel portrayed this time by an actor (Mark Quartley) working in a motion capture suit and then having the images projected onto the stage – the same technique used to create Gollum in the Lord Of The Rings films. Thus Ariel could be seen to fly, appear in multiple locations very rapidly, turn into a winged harpy and genuinely float unseen among other unaware characters.


So did it all work? Well yes and no. The visual effects were, as advertised, different and arresting. The first time Ariel appeared and the actor’s image was projected there was a definite moment of tingle but I’m afraid after that I found it somewhat distracting. I was never quite certain whether to watch the image or Quartley (often at different points on the stage) and found myself focusing on the latter from where the words were clearly issuing. I thought some of the projections (e.g. Prospero’s “hounds” which chase Caliban and his co-conspirators) worked rather better. It had struck me by the interval that what we were essentially watching was quite a traditional take on the play overlaid with innovative technology and I think it was the rather more basic take on the play which I felt let things down. That and the fact that over the years I’ve probably seen The Tempest more often than any other Shakespeare play which lent it an air of over familiarity – it was often on the A Level syllabus and so there were plenty of school outings. The worst was Vanessa Redgrave mangling it as Prospero at The Globe and the best being another RSC production back in 1983 directed by a then relatively unknown Sam Mendes with Alec McCowan as Prospero and a much younger Simon Russell Beale as Ariel (yes, you didn’t misread that!)

Talking of SRB, how was he in the central role? As mesmerising as ever with a fine sense of character and such clear diction – he could read the proverbial telephone directory and make it sound interesting in my view. Would that some of the rest of the cast had come up to his extremely high standard rather than, seemingly, going through the motions – Jenny Rainsford as Miranda an honourable exception. The comic characters I found tedious and the various lords uninteresting; actually there’s nothing new there because basically they are uninteresting.

So I left the Barbican with mixed feelings. I was glad to have caught up with the production to see what technological marvels could be achieved onstage nowadays but if I don’t see another Tempest for a while I don’t think I’ll be sorry.

The Tempest is often cited as Shakespeare’s final play – at least the one that is solely by his hand – and contains his great farewell to the stage. My second RSC visit in a week was to one of his first Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare’s plays (particularly the early ones) are notoriously hard to date but let’s go with the RSC’s own timeline which has it as number 5. This time I found myself back in Stratford upon Avon for the first time in a year (my last blog post explains the context for this) and sitting in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.


Frankly I wasn’t expecting that much of this production; early Shakespeare/a random plot/clunky poetry/lots of blood and gore – but how wrong I was. The play was thoroughly gripping with very clear direction (Blanche McIntyre) and some excellent performances. David Troughton as Titus himself was superb and all the other actors were equally engaging. A special mention goes to Patrick Drury as Titus’ brother Marcus who really invested his character with a high degree of believability in one of the less showy parts (though to be fair he does get one of the best speeches in the play). Saturninus, played by Martin Hutson was reminiscent of far too many conniving figures in modern day media based politics and Nia Gwynne excelled as a slinky Tamora, the Goth Queen.

What bloody man is that? (Wrong play!)

And so to the blood. Yes there was plenty of it as limbs, heads and a tongue are hacked off, stabbings and shootings take place and Tamora’s sons are ritually butchered – even an ill-fated fly meets a grisly end. But there was a macabre tone of black humour underpinning it all which kept most of the audience rapt, though two members of my party confessed to watching the most graphic bits through one eye behind their fingers! I’ve heard more than one critic say that this is Shakespeare doing a Tarantino and indeed the bloodshed and playfulness with language was entirely reminiscent of said film director: the closing banquet scene and mass killing were straight out of Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction. Given that Shakespeare predates Tarantino by several millennia though, perhaps the influences are rather more the other way round.

The thing that was really telling was the element of surprise. Even though I had an idea of the story outline this is one of the few Shakespeare’s I have never seen on stage before so it had the power to keep me hooked simply because I didn’t know what was coming next – unlike The Tempest. Whatever else, that Shakespeare bloke certainly knew how to tell a compelling story. Anyway that’s one more of Shakespeare’s plays ticked off the list. I’m not doing badly though it’s taken a number of years and I now have just five more plays of his left unseen on stage. Anyone care to take a guess which ones? Please post guesses below. (One clue: I’ve seen all the comedies)


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