The Tempest. RSC at the Barbican theatre.

The Tempest 2017. Simon Russell Beale as Prospero. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

The Tempest is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays and I have seen it quite a few times over the years but never like the current RSC production which is gracing the stage of the Barbican theatre. I am going to start by talking about the set and production design- usually a bad sign but not this time. There are moments- whole scenes even- where I could hardly believe what I was seeing. In the hands of the designer Stephen Brimson Lewis and The Imaginarium Studios the island becomes a real character in a way that most productions can only hope for. Its noises, sounds and sweet airs become tangible, set amongst shimmering patterns of light and colour. Bravura spectacles are conjured out of thin air. I was able to watch a Prospero who really did seem to be able to do magic- a fact which made the ending all the more powerful as I had seen with my own eyes what he was giving up. It is the most beautiful thing that I have ever seen on a stage, filling the Barbican theatre with light, colour and illusion. From the moment that the huge ribs of the wooden ship which formed the set began to shake in a fierce sea, an effect created purely by a trick of the light, until Prospero’s perfectly judged, simply spoken, final speech standing in a small pool of white light, over one thousand people were held in the grip of the kind of experience that only live theatre can give you. As the applause started I looked across into the audience, surprised to remember that there were other people alongside me. All that spectacle had been stripped away, distilled down into a single figure on the stage, speaking gently to each one of us individually. If this isn’t the future of large scale theatre I’ll be astonished.

The Tempest. London Barbican 2017. Mark Quartley (centre) as Ariel and Simon Russell Beale as Prospero. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

Of course the real wonder of the production lies in Simon Russell Beale’s performance as Prospero. It might have been tempting for an actor playing Prospero, set against that kind of spectacle, to overplay, feeling that they had to be somehow bigger, more commanding just to match up to it. Simon Russell Beale asserts himself quietly by using simple honesty and truth. He means every word that he says. He is the greatest Prospero that I have seen- and I saw Paul Schofield be wonderful in the part when I was a teenager. There is power- as in the electrifying moment when he screams in Ariel’s face, realising that Ariel has greater compassion than he can find in himself at that moment and his own magical power is not enough- but there is great gentleness and humanity too. His scenes with Miranda are tender and raw and his relationship with Ariel is both complex and heartbreaking. This is a play about mortality, a play about accepting your own limitations and those of others, a play about forgiving and letting go. It takes an actor with a big heart and great delicacy to stand at the centre of it and show us that.

The Tempest. London Barbican 2017 Mark Quartley as Ariel. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

Ariel is one of the most fascinating characters in Shakespeare and in this production he is placed centre stage both as a character and within the virtual reality. We see him trapped, we see him as a giant screaming harpie, we see him tease, we see him fly. He truly is a watchful, mercurial spirit, belonging everywhere and nowhere, who is both mysterious and strange, but alongside the virtuoso special effects we also need to see and feel a real presence who sulks, does his master’s bidding eagerly or reluctantly, and who longs for his freedom. This can only come from an actor who is physically present. Mark Quartley gives a fine performance which both acknowledges his alter ego and creates a strong, vibrant, yet ethereal presence on stage. It is typical of the attention to detail which is obvious throughout the production that when he is finally released from his bondage he runs out to freedom through the one exit which has not been used at all during the show. We have no idea where he is going.

Jenny Rainsford and Daniel Easton have some nice moments as Miranda and Ferdinand and the comedy is well played- especially when Trinculo hides with Caliban- but it does seem a little thin in comparison to the wonders surrounding it. Jonathan Broadbent is a loathsome and believable usurping brother who deserves all he gets. There is nobody in the cast who lets the side down. It is particularly good to see the masque performed as it is often cut and it is wonderfully sung and staged. The play makes much more sense with it there.

Special effects of any kind can be a mixed blessing. they can overwhelm and take the place of real feeling and humanity. It is a real tribute to the work of the cast, and to the director Greg Doran’s deep understanding of the play that this never happens here. There is a unity of vision which allows the verse to continue to dominate and have clarity.

Just a few times in my life I have seen a production which makes me feel privileged to be there. When the play is The Tempest, one of the first Shakespeare plays that I saw as a young girl, there is a definitive central performance and my favourite character is allowed to run riot among great beauty………. well it just doesn’t get much better than that.

Richard II. Live relay at the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough, from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford Upon Avon. 13-11-13

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Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York and David Tennant as Richard II.
Production photograph by Kwame Lestrade.

Richard II is a play that I am very fond of. Richard became king at the age of ten and the play provides a moving look at what this may do to a person who is forced to grow up only seeing himself through the warped perspective of a world where he is treated as a divinely ordained, all powerful king, while at the same time being forced to rely on others in order to fulfil that role. Richard discovers himself to be a flawed and vulnerable human being too late as the relentless real politik of the usurper Henry Bolingbroke destroys him and the prop of kingship- his only reality- is taken away. He is capricious, needy, childlike, arrogant, artistic, impulsive, petulant, a sensitive and thoughtful man at heart who would have been better suited to a life in the Arts than kingship. He is an easy target for both hangers on who want to take advantage of him and achieve favour and those enemies who are ruthless enough to take him down. This is a story of regime change and the toll it takes on those involved- above all the king himself- and it is told in some of the most beautiful poetry that Shakespeare ever wrote. It is a play that can break your heart.

You never hear the part of Richard being talked about as a “mountain” in the way that Hamlet or Lear are but looking back at that list of words I have picked out to describe aspects of his character it probably should be. I have seen some great Richards over the years. David Tennant has some natural advantages for the role. He has the physical presence, a natural elegance and beauty, that any actor playing Richard needs. He has a facility to speak the verse well and a quicksilver mind which makes the speeches easy to understand. Watching him we certainly believe in the less admirable aspects of Richard’s character. He is very good at the public Richard, imperious and spoiled to a fault and particularly good in the deposition scene. This is Richard’s parting shot at Bolingbroke, he is toying with him, making sure that he goes down under protest with all flags flying. It’s one of Shakespeare’s great scenes and he does it proud. What he didn’t quite reach, for me, was the sensitivity and poetry at the heart of Richard, an otherworldly quality which touches the heart. This is a very difficult balance to strike in order to turn the audience’s sympathies around. We should feel as ambivalent as Bolingbroke himself about Richard’s downfall. While we can see that a king who is utterly unsuitable to rule needs to go we also need to feel desperately sorry for him as a man, flawed like all of us, learning what he needs to know too late to allow him to become a wiser, humbler Richard.

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Jane Lapotaire as the Duchess of Gloucester.
Production photograph by Kwame Lestrade

Bolingbroke is played with uncompromising toughness by Nigel Lindsay. This is a real bruiser of a man and there is no doubt what he is after. It is only after he is sure of getting it that the doubts which will follow him for the rest of his life begin to grow. This is nicely suggested by the figure of Richard looking down on him once again at the end of the play. just one among many fine directorial touches from Greg Doran.

The real joy of this production for me were three great performances from three experienced Shakespearian actors, Jane Lapotaire as the Duchess of Gloucester, Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt and Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York. You could wait a lifetime to see those three parts played better. The grief and anger of the duchess was visible, real and searing and watching John of Gaunt tear into Richard after giving us the most beautifully spoken and heartfelt manifesto of his reasons for doing it in the this England speech was a very fine sight indeed. I would buy myself another ticket simply to see that again. I also liked Oliver Rix as Aumerle, York’s son. He is a confused young man, blinded by his love for Richard and the performance was very well thought through and strongly played.

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Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt.
Production photograph by Kwame Lestrade.

This is a very beautiful production to look at, made with enormous attention to detail from traditional old style theatrical magic, gobbos and gels given a new dimension by modern technology. The design by Steven Brimson-Lewis and lighting by Tim Mitchell gives us a shimmering cathedral made from light and curtains of beads, backlit undergrowth under a red moon, a cold blue shadowy prison and a moving platform right across the stage, a great asset for any production of this play, showing off Richard in his pomp giving great flexibility to the cast and director and moving the play along with great speed as a scene is transformed in an instant. It is the kind of setting that Shakespeare’s most beautiful verse deserves.

I would like to end by saying one or two things specific to the live relay. I am getting quite used to them now but this was the first I have seen that almost gave me the sense that I was sitting in the audience at the stunning new Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It was beautifully produced, pointing us towards key moments and reactions, as well as giving us a sense of the larger picture. I do wish though that the producer of it had remembered that the audience are not necessarily Shakespearean novices who need to be told what the opening scene contains as the lights go down. These live relays sell out weeks in advance and most of us are only there because money and/or time does not allow us to be there in the audience, sitting in the theatre as we would really like to be. Please don’t patronise us. I also wasn’t comfortable seeing two of the actors, Jane Lapotaire and Michael Pennington, interviewed live during the interval. They were charming, insightful and in Jane Lapotaire’s case very moving but it just wasn’t appropriate- even though their parts were over for the evening.

Hamlet. BBC/RSC/illuminations. 2009.

I never got to see David Tennant’s Hamlet on stage so I was very pleased to see it on film. It is beautifully shot, mostly in a sumptuous ballroom location, with some lovely camera work, using close ups, asides to camera, and a cracked mirror to great visual effect. There is no weak link in the cast, although I was a little disappointed by Mariah Gale as Ophelia. She looks beautiful but sometimes lacks conviction, and her mad scene is rather too beautiful for my taste. The gravedigger could have found more depth in his part too. Penny Downie and Patrick Stewart, both hugely experienced classical actors, are excellent as Gertrude and Claudius and work extremely well together using body language and eye contact to suggest the details of a relationship which are not always laid out in the text. Oliver Ford-Davies makes a very good Polonius, an aging man who is fighting against the fact that he is beginning to be seen as an old dodderer by his children and some of those at court but still has the capacity to be dangerous. My favourite performance was that of Edward Bennett as Laertes, heartfelt and believable, a loyal brother and dutiful son who is never in any danger of thinking too precisely on the event.

As Hamlet himself David Tennant starts off very well. He has an intensity as an actor which works well for him in the early part of the play and he is believable as a grieving son who has been pushed over the edge by the loss of his father and the behaviour of Gertrude and Claudius. The early soliloquies are very well handled and are beautifully shot in close up. He reins himself in and we are drawn into his grief and confusion. Later on, as he feigns madness and begins to toy with the people around him I found him rather too manic and lost that intense identification with him that I felt at the start- for me it became a performance full of sound and fury which didn’t signify nearly enough. We need to see Hamlet as we see him at the beginning from time to time as a foil to his game playing and I didn’t feel that we quite did. Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I started beautifully as Hamlet destroyed the security camera which had shown us some of the action and flung himself down on the floor to think, but it ended in a rush of activity and gesture which I could have done without. There are some beautiful directorial touches which are carefully preserved in the film and I admire Greg Doran’s work very much but I would have been tempted to rein his star in a bit and let the fierce intensity which David Tennant can project do the job. Shouting and running around pulling faces is no substitute for his natural presence as an actor. It may well have worked better on a large stage where there was plenty of empty space for him to fill. A very good Hamlet then, but not a great one.

Having said all that any production of Hamlet is always something of a curates egg in that however it is approached there will always be gains and losses. The Player King and his troupe suffered a little from the way that they had to slot into the whole style of the production and John Woodvine- a very talented and experienced Shakespearian- was not able to run at his part with relish as he might have done in a different production. For me this production had a lot to enjoy but didn’t quite hit the mark. I always come away from Hamlet feeling that- it’s one of the reasons why it is worth going back to it- so that doesn’t take away the fact that I enjoyed it very much and I am very glad that it has been recorded so skilfully on film.