The Tempest – Royal Haymarket Theatre

The Tempest by William Shakespeare

When I was doing my A’ Levels…in that time before time… I remember being cautioned by one of my teachers about the late plays of Shakespeare….Cymbeline, A Winter’s Tale and Tempest…I was told they were un-performable and incomprehensible….

They are difficult…but in truth they probably present fewer difficulties than was then popularly believed. They are all less declamatory pieces than some of the earlier works and perhaps particularly as they follow the series of great declamatory tragedies from Hamlet onwards…Yet these later works have such golden words and are so very moving about life and love and forgiveness. A Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s most beautifully crafted stories of love, loss and redemption.

These are the same preoccupations of the Tempest. The play has some of the most glorious poetry ever written for voice to speak. Prospero is given a number of beautiful speeches…but Ariel more than Shakespeare’s earlier fairies, has an angelic soul and his relationship with Prospero is sadly beautiful and beautifully sad.

Ralph Fiennes gave us a dominant, brooding, god-of-a-Prospero. It’s moving but perhaps ultimately this Prospero’s struggle is too readily redeemed by forgiveness. Fiennes always spoke beautifully and held the audience in his hand when he spoke and no actor could want more from a performance than that and to cavil at his interpretation may be ungracious.

Nicholas Lyndhurst’s Trinculo, Clive wood’s Stephano and Giles Terera’s Caliban all had moments of exquisite understanding. But sometimes the playing lacked a lightness and swiftness of touch that held the production back a little…and made the pace of the story seem too slow. The part of Gonzalo is, as it were, us, the honest broker to the story and Andrew Jarvis gave an honest account of that part without ever quite bringing it to life.

This play is ultimately about the corruption of power, as much as it’s about love and the redemptive power of forgiveness. In Shakespeare‘s world power was a male prerogative… most particularly in the Jacobean phase of his career. The playwright therefore gives us only one female. – Miranda, Prospero’s daughter. Here, Elizabeth Hopper never quite delivered the innocence and naivety and her relationship with Ferdinand (Michael Benz) never quite rose to the giddy intensities of love-at-first-sight…that most often revisited of Shakespeare’s dramatic signature motifs…..

The opening scene – the storm was great. The mask scenes were less convincing…and at times less than apt. Ariel (Tom Byam Shaw) spoke well but his singing in falsetto was too high a price to pay for the loss of poetry. Caliban’s song was also a mangled account of the words.

Of all of the Shakespeare canon, this play with its surviving contemporary music, gives a sense of how it might have been performed as a semi-mask at the court of King James. There’s also Thomas Lindley’s music for the play from the eighteenth century to consider. And as music is at the heart of the play’s conception it was sad that music we were given….fell short…without good cause….

The mask-play that is the Tempest is a sophisticated, perhaps even elitist, art form. Its combination of mask, dance, music, singing and drama is the same combination of forms that intrigues Shakespeare’s contemporary, Monteverdi, into composing the first Operas. It’s clear that tastes and court performance were leading the older Shakespeare in a similar direction. In the end in England the art form went nowhere as the courtly mask was gradually uncoupled from popular drama.

As a consequence the golden age of the play is doomed to end tragically in the dramatic dross of Massinger’s City Madam….

So all in all this Tempest was less of a theatrical storm than the notices in the grand portico of the Royal Haymarket theatre might lead you to believe but is very much more than a storm in a teacup. If you love this play it is well worth hearing Ralph Fiennes grand account of Prospero.

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