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.

Can Dogs Act?

There has been a lot of talk about whether Uggie the Jack Russell terrier who stars with Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo in The Artist should get an Oscar. A campaign to make this happen has already begun. He has been awarded the palme dog by a group of journalists at the Cannes film festival and BAFTA, the British film academy, felt the need to remind their members that all votes must go to a human candidate. It got me thinking.

At first it seems a ridiculous idea. Surely the Oscar should go to the dog’s trainer, or perhaps to the actor who has to build up a close relationship with the dog on screen or stage, rather than the dog? Isn’t the “performance” just the result of the audience projecting their own feelings onto the animal and seeing what they want to see? The old actor’s adage “never work with children or animals” grew up for a reason. Any time that you put a dog in front of an audience half of those watching will already be on its side before it has done anything at all. As soon as it actually does something their hearts will be going out to it. Dog acts have always been popular whether on stage or screen. Dogs were stars of music hall and variety and heroes of early silent films and they love to work with people. A well trained dog, doing things which come naturally to it, loves to work and give pleasure to its trainer and that pleasure is infectious and crosses over to the audience. The dog may be enjoying being the centre of attention but it is not acting.

Or is it? Set aside the obvious fact that a dog is not capable of playing a character for a moment and think again. Many a human star has made a great career out of playing themselves in every role that they are given. Some have been great actors and won Oscars for it. This fragile skill gave Cary Grant and James Stewart, just to name two examples, great careers and they were much loved and admired for it. Nobody would dream of suggesting that they can’t act. Being able to play yourself in a relaxed, natural, truthful way requires great skill. I have been on stage with many amateur actors who were utterly unable to achieve this and even watched quite a few professionals who struggle. That kind of honesty and vulnerability is at the heart of great acting. It is more important than any assumed accent, walk or character make up, however clever and convincing they may be. Some dogs, only a very few admittedly, have the confidence and personality to be able to do this without any trouble at all. If they are made to understand what it is that they have to do and they are around people who they trust they will do it wholeheartedly without any embarrassment or second thoughts. If they are one of the well trained minority who have the talent that is……….. One of the best times I have ever had in a theatre was watching an RSC production of Two Gentlemen of Verona during which Richard Moore, playing Launce, gave his dog Crab his dinner. It was a blissfully funny and perfectly timed double act and on the day I saw it Crab looked straight at his master and yawned on cue when he was told that he was the most disreputable dog in creation. It stopped the show. Most of that timing came from a wonderful actor of course, but it wouldn’t have worked with just any dog. Wooly the lurcher who played Crab was special and the RSC has recognised that by placing his picture at the very top of the stairs up the observation tower in the new main theatre at Stratford.

Here is the trailer from the film Bombon El Perro with Juan Villegas and his co star Cha Cha, a dogo argentino. Have a look and see what you think.

Notice the shared glance in the van. That dog is secure in his own skin. He is playing himself to perfection and he has been put in a situation where he can relax with the actor sitting next to him and a whole relationship is suddenly there on screen. They are an odd couple, summing each other up. When they get to know each other things will start to happen and we want to be there to watch. The plot is being set up and it is going to be one which explores character rather than relying on events. Both of them have been through hard times and already we are on their side. Cha Cha also has tremendous physical presence, something which Olivier was much admired and praised for, and this is another aspect of a performance which is by no means trivial.

More often of course dogs have been action heroes, asked to use their physical skills to rescue or help. Rin Tin Tin and Lassie were the most famous examples of this type of canine Errol Flynn character, and they are much loved and and still remembered. When I owned a rough collie I got used to life having a constant soundtrack of “Ahhhh! Lassie” when we were out and about together. This was usually from children but by no means always. An early example of this kind of stardom was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s American pit bull terrier Luke who starred with his master in a series of silent films, displaying great confidence and physical courage. Here is a montage of some of his greatest moments.

And that brings me back to Uggie. If I was writing his Oscar citation I would want to point out how he never takes his eyes off his screen master Jean Dujardin, lesser dog actors can often be seen sneaking a glance at their off stage trainer or even staring at them fixedly waiting to be told what to do next. His concentration is absolute. Actors spend years at drama school doing exercises to get them to that point. It’s difficult, much more difficult than it looks. I would want to show the scene where he is careering down a crowded street on a rescue mission, alert and full of purpose. He had obviously been trained to run down that road but nobody could have put that kind of commitment into his head. He had to feel it for himself. The timing which Uggie and Jean Dujardin display throughout in their scenes is delightful. Try doing that kind of acting with someone who isn’t up to it, as I have after knowing what it is like to be on stage with someone who has talent, and you will fall flat on your face. It takes two, and on this occasion one of them happened to be a dog.

Here is the trailer for The Artist. Look out for him.

So does Uggie deserve an Oscar? Maybe, maybe not. He is probably above such things, as he should be.The academy has never recognised a performance by a dog before, and there have been many. He is a very good skateboarder though, and I would love to see him skateboarding across the stage on Oscar night carrying an Oscar for Jean Dujardin.

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.