Having already seen Twelfth Night, a Globe production that transferred to the West End, I was expecting much of the same for The Tempest–an incredibly authentic to Shakespeare’s time production with phenomenal acting and costumes and a rather traditional take on the script. This Tempest, directed by Jeremy Herrin, was something quite different. While many of the costumes were still authentic and the actors’ dedication to the text was clear, this production made some unique choices regarding staging and characterisation that challenged the text, sometimes succeeded wildly and sometimes falling flat.
In the typical form of a Shakespearean comedy, The Tempest follows three groups of characters, the family, the court and the clowns, as they stumble about and get into various misadventures, all watched over by the guiding eye of Prospero and his spirit servant Ariel. In this take on the show, it was the family story that dominated, becoming the most real and believable narrative. Miranda (Jessie Buckley) and Ferdinand (Joshua James) were just the right degree of over-the-top, young teenagers stranded on a deserted island who, quite naturally, fall madly in love within the space of three hours. Their relationship was as hilarious as it was adorable and genuine, while Prospero’s (Roger Allam) overprotective and meddling parenting was refreshingly relatable. His relationship with the teenagers humanised the sorcerer, turning the all-powerful figure into simply a father who wants to see his daughter happy.
While that segment of the narrative shined, however, much of the story involving the other characters lacked a bit of sparkle. The courtiers’ sniping and bragging went too fast and failed to connect to the audience, losing much of the humour those lines should have had. Pip Donaghy’s Gonzalo, longwinded and oblivious, was too realistic rather than Shakespeare’s farcical character, and without the scorn the other characters feel for him being made clear, quite simply wasn’t funny. Antonio’s (Jason Baughan) plotting and betrayal barely made an impact, becoming a brief side plot rather than the involved meditation on regicide and usurpation that The Tempest often centres upon. These characters never seemed to have the life to them that Ferdinand and Miranda did, falling neatly into Prospero’s plan without a fight.
The comic subplot, that of the drunken butlers trying to usurp Prospero and take over the island, was decently well done, though I could not understand the reason behind Trinculo’s outrageous comic outfit, oversized horns, bright red codpiece and all. James Garnon’s Caliban was more bumbling and lovable than the outrageous African monster who tried to rape prepubescent Miranda that Shakespeare wrote; the audience on the whole seemed to enjoy it though I am undecided on the interpretation. Colin Morgan’s Ariel, meanwhile, was more a monkey than a spirit, swinging around the stage on handholds and lacking the sort of emotional range and melancholy that makes the character fascinating.
The staging made good use of entrances through the pit, surprising and delighting the standing audience. The puppetry, both the harpy and the wild dogs, was phenomenal, the pieces beautifully constructed and deeply haunting at the same time. (The addition of the Roman gods spirit pageant during Miranda and Ferdinand’s wedding ceremony, however, was just bizarre.) While some scenes were too solemn and quietly symbolic rather than embracing the full chaos that is a Shakespearean comedy, the production on the whole was a crowd-pleaser, doing the Bard’s words justice at the same time. It was oftentimes difficult to follow, and I would recommend having a decent familiarity with the play before attempting to see it or you may frequently feel lost in the story. The narrative of Prospero’s redemption and forgiveness, however, was always clear and believable, becoming the central story around which everyone else revolved.