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.

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Henry IV Part One. Screening from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.

 

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Antony Sher as Falstaff. Production photograph by Tristram Kenton.

Henry IV part one is a wonderful play, moving from the personal to the political and showing us a snapshot of England both at court and in the lively teeming streets of Eastcheap. Along with its second part it brings us as close as we are ever likely to get to the England of the time. We can understand it perfectly as so little of what matters has changed. Look around you and you will find the descendants of Hal, Bardolph, Mistress Quickly and the rest. The scope of the play, both socially and emotionally, is fascinating. The history plays were Shakespeare’s most popular works among his contemporary audiences. By the time he wrote Henry IV parts one and two he was an experienced writer who knew exactly what his audiences wanted and how to give them it. We see a national crisis- an inevitable civil war brewing- and a family crisis when a charming, feckless royal son is forced to face up to his duty and destiny and become the great hero that Shakespeare’s audiences knew him to be. Add in a cracking sword fight to end a bitter rivalry and Falstaff, the greatest lovable rogue who has ever walked a stage and there really isn’t a lot more that you can want.

There is a lot to admire about the RSC’s 2014 production. Antony Sher’s Falstaff is a delight. The character was a huge hit right from the start and all of the charm, love of life, selfishness and cynicism which people responded to back then is still irresistible in his performance. I have been lucky enough to see some great Falstaff’s and Antony Sher’s certainly joins the list. It may be a gift of a part but it still needs someone worthy of it to play it. I particularly liked the way that Falstaff’s aristocratic background (he is a Sir) was obvious in the timbre of his voice and his bearing. The necessary rapport with the audience was there and I regretted the fact that I wasn’t there in person to make the most of that aspect. I was completely bowled over by Trevor White’s performance as Hotspur. This is an easy part to shout your way through without much thought but there was real conviction behind every word he spoke and a compelling stage presence. When we saw him alongside his wife, Lady Percy, a lovely performance from Jennifer Kirby, it was also clear to see how their marriage managed to work in spite of everything and this is a difficult thing to get across. He may be a nightmare of a husband but there is a lot more to it than that. Finally, along with Alex Hassell as Hal, he gave us a terrific climax of a sword fight. Jasper Britton had great conviction as Henry IV and I am really looking forward to seeing him in part two. The Eastcheap scenes in the Boar’s Head were very well done, although it is hard to conjure up the tavern atmosphere on a large stage, and I enjoyed Paula Dionisotti’s performance as Mistress Quickly very much. She looked wonderful and I felt as though I understood her perfectly. It was a thoughtful, detailed and very natural performance. Joshua Richards was perfect as Bardolph- his nose and his comic timing were both something to wonder at. I wasn’t quite so sure about the comedy aspect when it came to Alex Hassell as Hal. He certainly looked the part of the young dynamic hero and I don’t want to suggest that he was in any way lacking, but I’m not sure that performance came from the heart in quite the same way. Hal is a character that I fell in love with from the moment I first saw him on stage so maybe I am just very hard to please. I wasn’t sure about the bromance aspect with Poins, much as I found Sam Marks charming as an actor, so that may have influenced me too.

All in all this was a great treat and I still have some of my favourite scenes to come in part two later this month.

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.