The Tempest. Baxter theatre company/RSC at Leeds Grand Theatre. 2-4-09

Production still by Alastair Muir.

I walked in to find myself in the middle of a matinee audience packed out with high school students. The noise was quite something and the atmosphere was excited and unsettled. Not good. I knew enough about the production to realise that there was hope so I wasn’t too worried and the production proved me right. It was clearly told, well spoken, fast paced and visually stunning and it held their attention, drawing cheers from some of them at the end. Good to think that a few of them will have been turned onto theatre for life as I was when I was taken down from school to see Macbeth (Helen Mirren and Nicol Williamson) and Richard II (Richard Pasco and Ian Richardson) at a similar age. I can put up with a few bottles of water being dropped and the odd urghh at a stage kiss when I think of that.
I loved Antony Sher’s Prospero. This is a favourite play of mine and I have never seen a Prospero where he was so clearly at the end of a long bitter struggle with himself in exile, only sustained by his love for his daughter Miranda. When he finally has his chance for revenge he has to make a difficult journey during the play and realise that he needs to both forgive his enemies and let go of both his bitterness and also allow his daughter to find happiness with Ferdinand away from him. The pain of this is obvious, but when he has done it he can lay down his powers and accept his mortality calmly and peacefully. As he says his every third thought will now be of death.

Production still by Alastair Muir.

It was a wonderful Caliban from John Kani. Most definitely a dignified and dispossessed man rather than a monster, the insults heaped on him became racist insults and his taking possession of his island again is the final image of the production and a very satisfying one too. Like Prospero he can now be at peace.
Ariel was strong and forceful- nothing airy or flighty about him at all and visually and vocally he was stunning. It was a great image when he was set free and Prospero washed off his painted markings with running water. Ariel is one of my favourite characters in all of Shakespeare and he did it justice.
The set was of thick twisted tree roots and branches reaching up to the top of the stage. Every bit of it was used beautifully and lit perfectly to change the mood and focus of a scene. The puppetry was visually stunning, perfectly executed, and set the play in an African context along with the dance and movement. It was exciting and fun to watch. The spirits/puppeteers also added a great deal during the play making the magic of Prospero and Ariel a constant watchful presence.
A perfect piece of storytelling then, clear as a bell, which swept you away and gave you plenty to wonder at and enjoy.


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