THE TEMPEST

★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
  at _RSC STRATFORD-UPON-AVON.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _4th MAR.

February 23, 2023

images © Ikin Yum @ RSC.

You aren’t going to be offering much in the way of groundbreaking or original thought drawing attention to the timelessness of any particular thread or motif in a Shakespeare production. There’s a reason the Bard’s oeuvre is enduring, and ingrained in educational syllabuses across the English-speaking world. Throw a dart at any of his pieces, and you’ll hit some broader, innately human motivational nerve.

The Tempest, for instance, fringed though it may be with the fantastical and the fay, pivots heavily around such consummately relatable themes as the corrosive, self-destructive nature of resentment and embitterment, the necessity of empathy or appreciation and, ultimately, the virtue and power of ‘letting go’ – of grievances, of vengeful impulses, and indeed of control. Indeed, the balance of power and influence are in constant flux in this tale of an exiled Duke (Alex Kingston) seeking to right the wrongs wrought upon them  (even if it does occasionally allow for slightly discomforting undertones of subjugation and colonialism to rear their heads in the process).

The RSC’s latest spin on the tale hits the salient beats of the source material with flair and impact, courtesy of a solid cast and some evocative staging. But so too does Elizabeth Freestone imbibe her staging of Tempest with other wrinkles and subtext that feel just that touch more timely and prescient. The play’s late-game cry for empathy and understanding particularly resonates in this day and age of immediate cancel culture and organised, unyielding judgement, but it’s a creeping ebb of environmentalism that really takes root.

Familiar Waters… – Whilst perhaps best known to many for her recent television work in the likes of BBC‘s ‘Doctor Who‘ and Sky’s ‘A Discovery of Witches‘, for Alex Kingston (pictured above as Prospero, in promotional photography for this production, © Asiko @ RSC), returning to the RSC is something of a homecoming. She first joined the company back in the nineties, and has been involved in a variety of producions, including ‘King Lear’, ‘Much Ado About Nothing‘ & ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’.

Freestone and designer Tom Piper quite literally litter the edges of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s stage with a collection of un-recycled detritus and uglies. Where the book calls for logs or even wooden flagons, they are replaced here with ugly, heavy oil drums, or semi translucent, plastic fuel cartons. Symbols of bondage and servitude take the form of garish blue nylon rope, or equally synthetic discarded fishing nets. When Heledd Gwynn’s spirit Ariel takes on the form of an avenging harpy to wreak fear upon her master’s enemies, the grand, five-person illusion takes on the appearance of a wretched, black-stained great winged thing, reminiscent of unfortunate birds seen in practically any coverage of lamentable oil spills. Even the ‘sweet nature’ elementals of the second-Act masque must first shed themselves of skirts comprised of carrier bags, discoloured plastics and other such rubbish, whilst Prospero’s own conduit through which she executes her ‘rough magic’ is an orange, plasticky remnant of a former life jacket.

Familiar Waters… – Whilst perhaps best known to many for her recent television work in the likes of BBC‘s ‘Doctor Who‘ and Sky’s ‘A Discovery of Witches‘, for Alex Kingston (pictured above as Prospero, in promotional photography for this production, © Asiko @ RSC), returning to the RSC is something of a homecoming. She first joined the company back in the nineties, and has been involved in a variety of producions, including ‘King Lear’, ‘Much Ado About Nothing‘ & ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’.

In terms of its visual language at least, there’s a palpable sense that plastic, unnatural things, and man’s own irresponsibility, have polluted this production of The Tempest. It may seem at first glance to some like a decidedly modern, some may even suggest clumsy, Thunberg-esque bolt-on, woven in for flair or effect, but in execution it actually marries perfectly organically with the story’s existing warnings of how man’s excesses and shortcomings can have an impact on the natural order and way of things. It’s also something of a treat to watch the journey of a show gradually ridding itself of its canted steel rigging, shipwrecked flats, articial adornments and on-stage clutter – one of Ferdinand’s (Joseph Payne) indentured tasks is to literally litter-pick, including one on occasion straight from the hands of the audience – to reveal the light and air of nature. Again, Piper’s set work here is particularly engaging, but it’s handsomely met by Johanna Town’s transportive lighting, and Adrienne Quartly’s oft-ethereal sound design and music.

“There’s a palpable sense that plastic, unnatural things, and man’s own irresponsibility, have polluted this production of The Tempest.”

Gender swapping in Shakespeare is notably less, well, noteworthy. Heck, even with The Tempest, Helen Mirren delivered up a female Prospero, Hollywood-style, with the 2010 movie adaptation of the piece. And yet this does nothing to dilute how exciting, immediate and fresh Alex Kingston’s handling of the character is here. The actress – perhaps best known to many of late for her roles in the likes of Doctor Who and A Discovery of Witches – is an RSC stalwart, and every inch of her experience pumps through the veins of this commanding, absorbing take on the wronged Duke of Milan. She may bring some big name credentials to the production, but so too does she deliver the performance chops to go with it. Watch as her Prospero masterfully glides between subdued, maternal delicateness to malefic cunning to giddy grandstanding and showmanship, and the myriad emotional pit stops in between. Given the uneven, discombobulating structure and focus of Tempest, it takes a solid Prospero to – deliberate pun incoming – steer this particular ship through its wild waters, and Kingston more than delivers. A captivating, heartwarming and deeply human central turn that will not be easily matched, let alone bettered.

Other standouts amongst a strong company include Gwynn’s earnest, flighty and oft-musical take on the loyal Ariel, an intense, raw Peter De Jersey as the potentially-bereaved Alonso, and a feral, at-times animalistic take on Caliban from Tommy Sim’aan who, for all of his character’s venomous hissing and bounding, all-fours energy, is nonetheless able to plumb the character’s more tender moments – including iconic ‘full of noises’ verse – for flashes of tenderness and sympathy. Enigma and whimsy encircle many of The Tempest’s roster of characters, and this cast do a game job of adding dimension and nuance to their roles, amidst the unearthly and the mystical about them.

Others are given decidedly more one-dimensional material, yet deliver fun character work with it. Young Prince Ferdinand is paper-thin, cookie-cutter love interest fare on the page, yet the talented Payne mines a surprising amount of levity and boyish, awkward comedy from it here. Ishia Bennison (recently seen whipping up a collection for Sarah Lancashire’s Catherine Cawood in the BBC’s hugely-popular Happy Valley) is immensely likeable, and elicits plenty of giggles, as the honourable Gonzalo. And whilst Stephano and Trinculo remain amongst Shakespeare’s more oafish and atypical of fools, Simon Startin and Cath Whitefield elevate the material with infectiously silly and frequently-hilarious takes on the roles; he all pompous, inebriated self-importance, and she delivering quirky, cockney oddity. Sure, occasionally the characters’ extended dips and subplots into intoxication and moral turpitude can languish for just that fraction of a spell too long, but we can lay the blame for that more at Shakespeare’s door, and certainly not with Startin and Whitefield, who remain irrepressible joys throughout.

Hinged on an electric, must-see central performance, this is a Tempest that has consciously (in every regard) strewn the pollutants and wreckage of its own internal plot devices right out bare upon its stage. Environmentalism creeps at the periphery of its visual impact, as Kingston’s Prospero crackles with the same preternatural charge that the character itself possesses. It all makes for an absorbing evening of theatre. Sure, this may not be amongst Shakespeare’s most elegantly or seamlessly constructed of pieces, but Freestone’s assured production and a game cast do a fine job of smoothing over many of the bumps in the road. They conjure up a gripping, earnest flight of fantasy and humanity that is, in voice and quality, both timeless and decidedly modern at once.

Both timeless and timely at once, an electric Kingston conjures up a Prospero for the ages, steadying a vibrant, absorbing ship through some of the Bard’s admittedly choppier waters. Narrative and structural leaks aside, this is weird, wonderful theatrical wizardry.

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