Review: Revels never quite start- RSC Tempest

The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s very best plays with everything to delight an audience: a capricious magician, mischievous sprites, a leering monster, egregious villains, gorgeous poetry and some delightful comic turns, so how is it possible to end up with something as earnest and slow-paced as the current RSC offering?

Simon Russell Beale is one of our greatest actors, with an ability to touch the soul, and impeccable comic timing, yet his Prospero is a slightly resentful bore, who speaks in a monotone, albeit in a slightly faster one when he is displeased. Miranda is a trying part at the best of times but the deliberate delivery, presumably demanded by director Gregory Doran, makes it excruciating.

I would suggest a nice sit down for the whole cast and director with a copy of the Globe DVD to learn how it should be done from Roger Allam, Jessie Buckley and Colin Morgan as Prospero, Miranda and Ariel.

Back, if I must, to Doran’s version, the kind of production that makes me more than a bit cross. A lot of energy has gone into special effects, effective in the storm scene at the beginning, and at the banquet offered to the King of Naples and his companions but it is hard to talk to an animated image.

The cost of the uncomfortable interaction is the bond between Prospero and Ariel. It should form the emotional heart of the play and needs to be established at the outset, as it was when Russell-Beale played Ariel back in 1993 to Alec McCowen’s Prospero.

Very old-fashioned verse speaking is in evidence, robbing the lines of freshness in a way that seems quite shockingly dated, particularly after the naturalistic Almeida Hamlet. There were also a number of scenes where the actors’ feet appeared to have been nailed to the stage.

It isn’t terrible but if this were your first experience of Shakespeare, you would think it worthy and dull –  medicinal Shakespeare. What a massive pity for a play with so much to recommend it.

I take this particularly hard because the 1982 Tempest at the RSC was the first Shakespeare production I loved. Derek Jacobi roared and twinkled as Prospero, Mark Rylance flitted around in a venous suit as Ariel and Bob Peck, Alun Armstrong and Christopher Benjamin convulsed the audience as Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano.

I have never seen the comic scenes played so well as then. As to Prospero, I never thought I would see one to match the early Jacobi but Roger Allam’s at the Globe was better. Moreover even the tiresome betrothal scene was brilliant while Miranda and Ferdinand were a highlight- hard though that is to believe.

On balance, I cannot say the current RSC production was worse than the Rupert Goold version, set in the Arctic, with Inuit chanting, although at least Patrick Stewart was allowed to give a great performance, but it is just as much of a disappointment.

Come on, Mr Doran! Unleash the SRB who was the best Benedick on stage, terrified us as a murderous Lear and gave Tim Curry a run for his money as Arthur, King of the Britons.

“Why, that’s my dainty Ariel! I shall miss thee:
But yet thou shalt have freedom.”

My Tempest Production rankings

1 Roger Allam Globe (Jeremy Herrin)        Derek Jacobi RSC 1982 (Ron Daniels)

3 John Wood RSC 1988 (Nicholas Hytner)

4 Alec McCowen RSC 1993 (Sam Mendes)

5 Derek Jacobi Old Vic, 2003, (Michael Grandage)

6  Tim McMullan (Wanamaker) 2016 (Dromgoole)

7 Jonathan Slinger, RSC, 2012 (David Farr)

8 Simon Russell Beale RSC 2017, (Gregory Doran)

9 Patrick Stewart, RSC, 2006, Rupert Goold

 

 

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