I was trying to work out the other day which Shakespeare play I had seen most often and I’m fairly certain that it’s The Tempest. The best? Definitely the RSC’s 1993 version directed by a relatively unknown Sam Mendes with Alec McCowen as Prospero and an equally relatively unknown Simon Russell Beale as an extraordinary Ariel; the latter has since graduated to Prospero in the RSC’s most recent high-tech version. The worst? Undoubtedly Vanessa Redgrave in an early production at the Globe. I’m pretty sure that I’m into double figures, so it was with a little trepidation that I might be articulating the lines as the performance unfurled, that I approached an online version given by The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Based in London but primarily a touring company they specialise in recreating the theatre going experience that Shakespeare’s audiences would have seen. Thus, they are an all male troupe who use Elizabethan/Jacobean costume and music and dances of the era. They also perform al fresco as was the case here taken from their tour of 2108.
Despite my misgivings this turned out to be a very spry production which didn’t hang around but seemed to me to be fairly unedited. The Tempest is one of the shortest of Shakespeare’s plays but, even so, it had its foot to the floor in getting the play done in about 140 minutes. On the downside some of the subtleties got a bit lost but on balance it seemed to tick all the right boxes. Obviously in an outdoor performance projection and articulation are key to understanding. The first seemed a little overdone (one of the problems of capturing a live outdoor performance on video) but the second was very good with a real attempt to focus on the words. There was some excellent singing at various points.
The action is placed in and around the structure of a boat with the hatches doubling as the entrance to Prospero’s cell and Caliban’s cave. The first half played out in sunlight but by Act 2 it was getting dark and the lighting began to work its magic creating an ethereal glow; Prospero’s conjuring suddenly became infinitely more magical and his big second half speeches benefitted from being delivered in the spot lit dark. In all there was a cast of seven, six of whom carried out some fairly furious and interesting doubling (Caliban and the goddess Ceres, anyone?) and there was little respite for the actors. Even so it was evident in the final scene, when everyone is brought together, that they had run short of players. Trinculo, for instance, had mysteriously disappeared – but then he was inhabiting the costume of King Alonso at the time. And I wasn’t quite sure why the Boatswain seemed to be wearing Ariel’s nether garments.
The play is notoriously short on female roles anyway (unless the Goddesses in the masque are counted) and Simon Jenkins gave a winning performance as Miranda which didn’t strive too hard for femininity but was still totally believable. William Pennington’s Ariel hit all the right notes and I’m not just talking about his recorder playing and Reece Richardson seemed to be channelling his inner Brian Blessed as Caliban – which is no bad thing. Duncan Mitchell was better as drunken butler Stephano that the idealistic counsellor Gonzalo. I do think the latter has to be played as elderly and full of supposed wisdom; Mitchell looked like he was fresh out of college. I’m afraid I wasn’t totally convinced by Danann McAleer as Prospero. Of course, it’s the toughest part of the gig but I felt there needed to be more light and shade in delivery as it was in danger of becoming one note. This is particularly true of the always tediously long exposition when Prospero is filling in Miranda (and by extension us) on all the past events. I’ve always found this a weak spot in the construction and it needs a Prospero of “infinite variety” to get this over without boring the pants off the audience. I did, however, feel that McAleer’s performance grew in Act 2 and the set speeches came to seem more considered and eloquently delivered.
Having a taste of an outdoor performance, even down a camera lens, was a breath of fresh air (hah!) and I did watch some of the play outside myself – ah, the wonders of mobile devices! And how nice to see an actual audience for once – made me feel quite envious. While I can’t say I feel the need to watch another version of The Tempest anytime soon, this version was a pleasant enough way to keep the numbers ticking over.
The Tempest can be accessed via the Lord Chamberlain’s Men website. Click here
They also have an outdoor version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the same location
To keep up with the blog and all the latest online theatre reviews please click here and choose a follow option
For my Theatre Online list (suggestions and news of newly released productions) please click here. This list is supplemented by regular updates on Twitter (@johnchapman398)