A sea mist swirls effortlessly through the auditorium of The Old Vic, London, the entire expanse of the ornate Victorian proscenium arch framing a vast and billowing gun-metal grey silk swathe, undulating with evanescent gusts of wind. From high above the centre of the arch, a ship's rope ladder hangs perilously vertical, disappearing through a trap in the wood bedecked stage beneath. A heart-stopping clap of thunder, a burst of lightning, announcing the arrival of The Tempest at the Vic.
Sailors and travelling dignitaries swarm onto the cramped forestage as the grey mass swells and blusters behind them. A lone sailor clambers the rope ladder, suspended in watchful horror at the impending storm; a magical storm conjured by a magical man. Gentlemen are advised to abandon ship, the fear of a tempest striking horror into the hearts of the hardened sea-dogs.
With frantic fury the ship's company depart, the lone sailor leaping from his ropey vantage point, as the tether is cut and the hemp and wooden snake collapses with the stunning force of gravity into the trap door beneath. The upper edge of the grey silk mass dislocates from its lofty anchorage, swiftly cascading stagewards, to be swallowed in its entirety, and with breath-taking speed, into a small, square-shaped object on the wooden floor. A figure looms in a wild robe chequered with exotic pelts, brandishing a shamanistic staff, and as the last wisps of the vast grey expanse disappears, the foot of this wooden staff nonchalantly flips shut the end-board of an aged book. This is one of Prospero's magic books, and we have just witnessed a truly magical theatrical display.
In stark contrast to the dark looming greyness of the storm, the stage is now flooded in an other-worldly glow of warmth from a Mediterranean-hazy sunlight. The set highlights the meta-dramatic conflicts in The Tempest: a decrepit frame within a frame, a crumbling Italianate proscenium arch echoing the plaster finery of the Vic itself; a collapsing stage, like a drooping stroke-victim mouth, complete with entrances and exits; one meta-stage entrance piled full of books, and sporting a rough-hewed chair, a sorry impersonation of comfort and splendour; corners banked with drifting sand; a small dark cavern gaping uninvitingly beneath the decaying edifice; the action crossing the boundaries between this echo of its own theatricality and that space of the audience, stripped of seats, inviting action and reaction, the observed observing, the performer performing for the performer, performing for us.
We are in the fanciful realm of Prospero, played with such simplicity and introspection by Derek Jacobi, that it is obvious his magical powers emanate from his enormous cloak, his staff and his books, and not from the personality of the magician himself. When Jacobi disrobes, the blustering magician reveals his more vulnerable, pedantic side; a Crusoesque islander lost in his sea-constrained domain, a usurped Duke of Milan, whose passion, obviously reserved for books and erudition, has left him understandably susceptible to the machiavellian machinations of his more worldly brother, Antonio, played with aristocratic villainy by Michael Jenn. Jenn's performance is one of the few which displays any depth of character in his interpretation.
At times the action of the play appears slow, the actors ill-at-ease, the soporific simplicity of the Shakespeare-intended single place of action, likewise conforming to its classical decorum of time, unable to enthuse performances and audience alike; lulled into receptive complacency, there are times when our attention is drawn to anything other than the stage. Jacobi's mellifluous and impeccable delivery is insufficient to force the pace of a production seemingly wallowing in its island slumber.
Prospero's vulnerability, though occasionally tinged with an almost manic sense of power derived from the magical skills he has discovered, betrays the reason he has eventually been left stranded on this island, accompanied by his daughter Miranda, a girl so young when she first arrived that she has an innocence and ignorance of the world that her father appears to nurture. Claire Price adequately portrays sexual gaucheness as she is mesmerically manipulated by her father, Prospero, and led into the arms of Ferdinand, son of the shipwrecked King of Naples.
At the end of the play, Miranda encounters more stranded men from the Neapolitan ship, and announces the famous, though oddly poignant, lines: 'O brave new world / That has such people in't.' It is she who frequents the 'brave new world' of the island. These shipwrecked men display all the arrogances, foibles and petty villainies of the 'old world' to which they will soon return with this innocent.
Separated from his father and his fellow travellers, Ferdinand, played by Sam Callis, has the unenviable task of portraying the stock-character love-struck prince, a difficult role at the best of times, but one which seems doomed in this production. Miranda's betrothal to Ferdinand eventually leads to Prospero's return to power in Milan . Prospero's victory is, however, Pyrrhic, for Ferdinand will eventually become King of Naples, and Miranda, as Queen, will unite the two nations at the death of her father.
Robert East authoritatively plays the King of Naples, shipwrecked on the island and mourning the supposed loss of his son, Ferdinand. However, the true hero of this mishap is the faithful elderly lord Gonzalo, whose optimistic acceptance of their fate displays a constancy and integrity that Prospero recognizes when they are eventually reunited at the end of the play. John Nettleton is delightful in the role. His professionalism and perfectly timed delivery shining like a beacon on the Old Vic stage.
Comic elements to the plot are supplied by the drunken butler, Stephano, and his side-kick, Trinculo, played by Nigel Lindsay and Iain Robertson. Robertson, as a broad Scottish ship's cook, brandishes his ladle with weapon-like precision, but the vast cuts that have obviously been made to the text -- two acts of fifty-five minutes each, condensing the play into a 'palatable', though disjointed, taster of the original -- tend to make the importance of these characters vague and indistinct, allowing only the most knowledgeable of the play to appreciate the importance that their combined threat poses to Prospero himself.
It is easy to get as lost in this production as the poor shipwrecked sailors themselves, and with disastrous results for the comprehension of what is already a complicated plot. I would not suggest the play was purposely bowdlerized -- expurgated of sexual innuendo by nineteenth century moralists -- but sections do appear to have been 'top and tailed' to its detriment.
The island does have other 'native' inhabitants. The debased figure of Caliban, bastard child of the dead witch, Sycorax, who herself was stranded on the island after her banishment from Africa, is somewhat anthropomorphically overplayed by Louis Hilyer. Arms and legs apparently too heavy to control with ease, and covered in dirt and grime, this anagrammatic anomaly is taught language by Prospero. Caliban, however, bitterly complains that all this has given him is the ability to swear.
Caliban's implied attempted rape of Miranda has left him a loathed slave, forced to live like an animal, an ox-like bearer of logs, fearful of the power of Prospero, and eager to follow Stephano and Trinculo, who he treats as gods for bringing the magical power of alcohol. Often likened to classical images of savagery and otherness, Caliban is a Jacobean creation, whose resonances for the manipulation and exploitation of the native American, in the newly colonized regions of Virginia, are felt with unease even today.
The island does have one native spirit, uniquely its own, that of the sprite Ariel, played with puck-like impishness by Daniel Evans. Entombed in a tree by the evil witch, Sycorax, Ariel is released by Prospero, who uses the spirit's ephemeral powers to fulfil his magical intent. With an enchanting visual entrance, Ariel appears first as a glistering butterfly, vast wings outstretched and quivering with anticipatory delight. Later, with an even more impressive under-stage revelation, Ariel rises as a black bat-like creature of darkness and death.
Between these theatrical displays, the spirit hauntingly flits around the stage, appearing unexpectedly through trapdoors with the skill of a Kabuki clown, ever eager to please his master and so gain his freedom. A subtle and poignant moment occurs when this freedom eventually arrives; Ariel slowly, simply and anticlimactically, leaves the stage, the adolescent excitement and adventure of his tasks removed by the very freedom he so frantically sought, his life now as meaningless and shadowlike as his very existence.
Evans's counter-tenor voice is evocatively tuned to sing 'Where the bee sucks there suck I', although the musical arrangements sound strangely incongruous, sometimes intrusive, to the action of the play. Accompanied by two further spirits, there are moments when this Ariel and his companions overstep the mark between androgyny and 'camp', a feature which sits uncomfortably within the fairy-tale world of the production.
Michael Grandage's rather disappointing production, originally performed at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, has transferred, not without some difficulty, to the Old Vic stage. As for the star in this production, Jacobi appears singularly unwilling to engage with the role, and so engage the audience's sympathies or wonder. Nettleton noticeably outshines all who appear around him, and for me, this performance alone made the evening bearable. However, equal praise must go to the designer, Christopher Oram, and his assistant, Paul Wills, whose innovative and creative effects are forever visually implanted in my memory. Oram has technically created magic on the Old Vic stage; it is a shame the performances fail to live up to such innovative expectations.
Kevin Quarmby © 2003