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'The Tempest' review — a cut down Shakespeare loses its magic

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Shakespeare’s valedictory, to comply with the received scholarship on this climactic play of his, lands with muted force in Sean Holmes’s curate’s egg of a production – engaging and vital at some moments, flat and curiously lacking in impact at others.

The news value is surely that Ferdy Roberts, as Prospero, spends most of the performance wearing nothing but snugly-fitting yellow swimming trunks, which may be fine during these hot summer days but might be less comfortable for the actor as the play’s run continues till October. (So much for the “rich garments” referenced in the text.) The beachside feel is amplified by rubber ducks as props, even as Rachel Hannah Clarke’s earthy Ariel for her part comes on attired at one point as if en route to an ABBA tribute concert.

Quite what it all is meant to add up to is anyone’s guess in an unusually fast reading of the text (2 and 1/2 hours including the interval) that dispenses with the Epilogue. Prospero here finishes instead with the “revels now are ended” speech from the fourth act, following which he makes his (now-suited) way through the audience in the yard.

Prospero’s erstwhile authority has presumably been to some degree silenced by the surrender of his daughter Miranda which, on one level, is what this gorgeously complex play is about.

Not that its various thematics get much of an airing in a staging rife with sight gags (Harry Potter is an inevitable marker) that reunites the cast of Lucy Bailey’s concurrent Globe staging of Much Ado About Nothing — the leads in that play (Lucy Phelps and Ralph Davis) here given supporting roles, so as to balance the workload.

The heavy lifting falls, as it must, to Roberts, a longtime collaborator with Holmes who is second-to-none when it comes to speaking the verse and who grabs the opening scenes by the scruff of their figurative neck, taking the language at often breakneck speed.

“Let the games begin,” this Prospero says near the midway point in an exhortation I don’t recall from the text. (We also gets nods towards football and the Globe’s neighbouring Tate Modern.) There’s no denying the control this deposed duke exerts over a scenario that finds himself facing off against Miranda, Ariel, and the freedom-fighting Caliban. All of that comes before he encounters the shipwrecked community that includes his usurping brother, Alonso: the invaluable Katy Stephens, smartly turned out, makes much of her smallish role here as she also does in Much Ado.

The shipwreck itself is signalled at the outset by an onstage hose and a boatswain dressed in orange hi-vis apparel who confronts the voyagers first seen crammed into a glass box: the image recalls the claustrophobic visuals at the start of Marianne Elliott’s revival of Company.

Bearded and sonorously spoken, Roberts’ Prospero cuts against his comical appearance to remind us of the take-no-prisoners aspect to this most prismatic of Shakespeare characters. I’d never before clocked the ease with which Prospero is quick to dismiss more or less everyone in view as a “thing”, his much spoken of library here an overstuffed scrapbook that he anxiously combs through as if to retrieve a vanished past.

I wish Roberts had more to play off of, but neither Nadi Kemp-Sayfi (Miranda) nor Oliver Huband (Ferdinand) make much of the burgeoning relationship in the play that of course exists to feed Prospero’s deeply primal separation anxiety. Time and again, the rapture and urgency of the language are given a dampened-down edge, in an attempt perhaps to cut against rhetorical bravura – which seems a shame in a play offering such opportunity for precisely that.

The comic supporting turns are well handled by the double-act of George Fouracres (Stefano) and Ralph Davis (Trinculo), who are joined (one might say conjoined) by an inflatable lobster – now there’s a beach toy for you! – alongside Ciarán O’Brien as a swaggering Caliban who at one point leads the house in a call-and-response. The depths of subjugation to which this character is subject – Caliban deposed every bit as severely, if not more so, than Prospero has been – aren’t as fully evidenced as are the kinks of a character who offers at one point to lick a capturer’s shoe if that might help.

Miranda later addresses “O brave new world” to the audience, seemingly surprised to see us all. But Prospero’s pointed and poignant rejoinder, “’Tis new to thee”, gets lost in a Tempest suffused with visual japery but only intermittently in touch with the lasting and immutable magic that exists within the play itself.

*The Tempest is at Shakespeare's Globe to 22 October. Book The Tempest tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: The Globe Ensemble in The Tempest (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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