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 The TheatreguideLondon Reviews

The Tempest Archive

For the archive, we have filed our reviews of several productions of Shakespeare's Tempest on this one page. Scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.

 RSC 1999 - Globe 2000 - RSC 2002 - Old Vic 2003 - RSC 2007 - Old Vic 2010 - Haymarket 2011 - RSC 2012 - Donmar 2016 - RSC 2017

RSC - The Pit 
Autumn 1999

The Royal Shakespeare Company's small-scale production, designed for touring after brief London and Stratford runs, has a great deal of charm and inventiveness that many more elaborate stagings lack. Foremost among its virtues is Philip Voss's no-larger-than-life-size, human and benign Prospero.

Taking his clue from the background that Prospero was a scholar happier in the library than the throne, Voss gives us a gentle, loving father just this side of being an absent-minded academic. His normal mode is intimate and conversational, making his few lapses into high anger all the more frightening.

Voss's best moments are subtle and underplayed - the raised eyebrow or contented smile as he watches Miranda and Ferdinand fall in love, the totally believable father's paranoia that the teenagers will turn randy if he takes his eyes off them for a moment. (I've always thought that one of Shakespeare's slyest jokes is that, when he does leave them alone for a while, all they do is play chess.)

Equally strong and equally unconventional is Zubin Varla's very human and therefore very sympathetic Caliban. With only a slight twisting of the body and roughness of speech to suggest his monstrousness, this Caliban clearly has a legitimate case against Prospero. (Unlike some recent productions, this one doesn't stress the anti-colonialist interpretation, but leaves it quietly implicit.)

Varla's more human playing also helps make the comic scenes, too often unbearably unfunny, some of the high points of this version. Aided by James Saxon's rotund Stephano and Julian Kerridge's overage-schoolboy Trinculo, Varla makes comic gems out of Caliban's amazement at suddenly finding himself a four-legged animal and delight at discovering the wonders of wine.

Not all works in James Macdonald's production. Gilz Terera is a nonentity as Ariel, with no sense of either the character's magic or his rebelliousness. Nikki Amuka-Bird catches a few bright flashes of Miranda's discovery of love, but for the most part she and Oliver Dimsdale as Ferdinand are wooden, as are most of the shipwrecked court.

Though the masque scene delightfully draws the young lovers in to a magical dance number, most of Orlando Gough's music incongruously strains for Cleo Laine-type jazziness. Jeremy Herbert's set, an undulating white surface that allows the magical spirits to seem to float in air, doubles as a screen for his evocative video projections.

This is inventive, non-traditional stagecraft that doesn't show off, but, like the low-key playing of the leads, aptly serves this modest and evocative interpretation of the play.

Gerald Berkowitz

Shakespeare's Globe 
Summer 2000

The replica of Shakespeare's original theatre opened three years ago with the hope of helping actors and audiences rediscover the plays through performances in their original setting. For the most part that hope hasn't been realized, as actors and directors struggle to find the right performance style for a large open stage with half the audience standing around it and no roof to keep out the elements or aircraft noises.

The current production of The Tempest is no exception, with a jumble of performance styles, none of which really work, and no real magic, romance or poetry in its story of the magician-duke banished to an enchanted isle, who uses his powers to gain revenge on his enemies and find a husband for his daughter.

What it has is a real star, Vanessa Redgrave, though in a very muted performance as Prospero, and occasional flashes of cleverness in the comic playing.

Redgrave makes no gimmick out of the cross-gender casting, playing Prospero as a bluff and masculine man, like the country squire her brown-and-leather costume suggests. She growls her lines in a baritone designed to fight any hints of poetry, and is generally laid-back and naturalistic, except for an occasional broad aside to the audience.

How to deal with that audience is one of the Globe's challenges. Some try a very broad "We know you're there and we're going to involve you" approach. Caliban (Jasper Britton) plays some lines to individual groundlings, while Steven Alvey's comic Trinculo practically shouts "Hello boys and girls!" like a character in a Christmas panto. (Oddly, Steffan Rhodri, as his comic partner Stefano, doesn't do the same.)

Some attempt a larger acting style, recalling the grand posing and gestures of the 19th century. Geraldine Alexander's Ariel does that, adding to her vaguely out-of-it otherworldliness. But most, like Redgrave, give essentially the same performance they would give in an ordinary theatre, which isn't quite right for the space either.

The jumble, and a general lack of an overriding vision for the production, suggests a directorial failure. Oddly, the Globe management has chosen to forego directors this season, splitting the job into a Master of Play (Lenka Udovicki) to oversee movement and a Master of Verse (Tim Carroll) to deal with the words. Given that most of the cast stand in one spot and speak their lines lifelessly, the experiment can't be called a success.

There are moments. Though Redgrave does little with one of Prospero's big arias, "Ye elves," she does turn the other, "Our revels now are ended," into an exquisite moment. The clowns are good - I saw it on a very rainy day, and they ad-libbed a lot of funny business about the discomfort of the groundlings. And any real Shakespeare student or fan will want to see a production in the Globe, just to experience the space. You're just not going to find an exciting production of The Tempest here.

Gerald Berkowitz

RSC at The Roundhouse 
Spring 2002

Michael Boyd's new production for the Royal Shakespeare Company is crisp, clear and always engrossing, illustrating one of the RSC's greatest strengths along with, perhaps, some of its minor weaknesses.

Theatrical history will celebrate the RSC not just for its many individual successes but for its sustained revolution in the speaking of Shakespearean verse. A couple of generations of actors have learned to make Shakespeare sound as clear and natural as contemporary English without losing the poetry, and you need only listen to recordings of the high-poetic but empty recitations of earlier actors to appreciate the difference. (Or you can suffer through non-RSC actors today - a week ago I listened to thoroughly professional actors - no need to name and shame them - turn most of Macbeth into totally unintelligible gabble.)

And so it is to me the highest praise to say that not for a single second in this Tempest do you not know exactly what everyone is saying, what their words mean, why they are saying it, what they are feeling, and where this is taking the plot. For not the first time with the RSC I watched  mildly boisterous school groups in the audience come under the author's spell and follow the play totally engrossed.

If, in the process, a bit of the magic and poetry is lost, or if the very high standard makes you aware of the few cast members who are not quite up to the level of their fellows, or if the emphasis on clarity sometimes leads the actors to subdue passions, these are acceptable trade-offs.

For example, I would have preferred a more exciting opening scene than the rather languid storm and shipwreck Boyd gives us; and, while Kananu Kirimi is a likeably gamin Ariel, I'd wish she were a sufficiently skilled actress that she didn't need amplification to make her voice work in the more magical scenes. And, as with almost every RSC production of the past decade, a bit more sprightly pacing could have cut the running time down to under three hours.

But I wouldn't want any of these changes if they meant losing the power of Malcolm Storry's powerful Old Testament God of a Prospero or Geff Francis's proud and sympathetic Caliban, or of the believable and engrossing psychological journeys we watch their characters take. If Sirine Saba's Miranda is a bit over-ripe and phlegmatic, Alan Turkington makes an attractively heroic Ferdinand and Keith Bartlett as the King and Jerome Willis as Gonzalo score in roles that are not as simple as they look. Roger Frost and Simon Gregor make those two old bores Stephano and Trinculo (surely Shakespeare's dreariest comic characters) as bearable as I can imagine them being, just by not trying over-hard to be funny.

The production makes inventive use of the Roundhouse, with actors moving through the audience as well as the central space, and there's even an aerial ballet left over from the Millennium Dome. But the real power lies in our understanding of the very human story at the core of this and every Shakespeare play, and no one does that better than the RSC.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Old Vic Theatre 
Spring 2003

Derek Jacobi is an actor of immense charm and a beautiful way with Shakespearean verse. The Tempest is a great play. The combination should be magical, but this touring production directed by Michael Grandage is too much of a hit-and-miss affair to be totally satisfying.

Predictably, Jacobi is at his best in the subtle and unexpected changes he wrings out of overly familiar lines. The 'Our revels now are ended' aria, for example, is too often played for ethereal sweetness, but he makes Prospero suddenly recognise the emptiness of worldly glory in a sad, almost bitter contemptus mundi.

He can also be delightful, finding all the comedy in Prospero's absolute conviction that the teenage lovers will be at it if he turns his back on them for a second (It is one of Shakespeare's subtler jokes that when he does leave them alone for a while, all they do is play chess).

But elsewhere in the play Jacobi has been directed against his native strengths. His whole first scene, an extended exposition of the play's back-story, is shouted - not projected, just shouted in a way that reduces it to gabble. In another scene, for no clear reason, he sits upstage in a wooden garden chair, looking like nothing so much as a suburban grandfather snoozing in his back garden.

Sam Callis and Claire Price as the young lovers are not particularly impressive separately but do generate a nice Romeo-and-Juliet sweetness of love-at-first-sight when together. Louis Hilyer brings an attractive energy to Caliban and Daniel Evans keeps Ariel afloat. But the rest of the performances are generic and wooden, with Stephano and Trinculo, Shakespeare's least funny clowns, as dreary as they always are.

There are hints from time to time of a concept or interpretation behind the production - a moment or two suggesting Prospero's need to reintegrate into human society, or an occasional line hinting at the anti-colonial reading (with Prospero guilty of the same usurpation he was victim of).

But these are dropped as quickly as they're raised, and the whole production seems to have no point beyond being a showcase for its star - a showcase he is only allowed to take occasional advantage of.

Gerald Berkowitz

RSC at Novello Theatre 
February-March 2007

So much of the RSC's new Tempest is so very, very good that the occasional lapse into misstep or silliness hardly registers.

This is a production that can be recommended with equal enthusiasm to the first-timer, who will enjoy it, and the veteran, who will appreciate its many original touches.

Foremost among its strengths is Patrick Stewart's Prospero. In place of the too-frequently one-dimensional benign or vengeful old wizard, Stewart and director Rupert Goold have discovered a complex and tormented man.

This Prospero finds doing magic physically painful - it drains him - but giving up his power to rejoin humanity at the end of the play even more difficult. He clearly loves his daughter, but has raised her to obey him like an automaton. He is vicious with John Light's very human Caliban, making the monster's complaints ring true; and though he repeatedly speaks of loving Julian Bleach's Ariel, the coldness of their relationship says something different.

And Stewart makes Prospero vaguely aware of all these contradictions, and a very unhappy man as a result of them, so that his journey through the play will be one of finding a way toward an inner peace.

It goes without saying that Stewart speaks the verse beautifully, never more so than in the climactic farewell to his magic, in which we see him actually seeing the invisible spirits he is setting free and feeling the pain of their departure.

In a very courageous leap by director and actor (which could have gone terribly wrong), Julian Bleach's Ariel is no Disney fairy, but a spectral, ghoulish figure striding morosely through the play. He creates a striking image, and one that contributes to the play's ambiguous and ambivalent concept of Prospero's magic.

Mariah Gale's Miranda is not the usual faceless princess, but a sometimes disconcerting mixture of instinctive imperiousness, social awkwardness and adolescent rebellion. Craig Gazey's wry Trinculo stands out from almost all the others I've ever seen by actually being funny, and James Hayes makes Gonzalo attractive without lapsing into mawkishness.

And yes, there are a few slip-ups. The opening storm scene is notoriously difficult to stage, but this has to be one of the least successful attempts, with the characters merely standing there while speaking of being panicked. The magical feast is replaced by a dead seal (Don't ask), and the masque by some sort of Polynesian fertility ritual. And as interesting as Mariah Gale's Miranda is, the actress is left on her own, performing in an entirely different mode from everyone else.

But ignore them. Focus on the fine performances all around, particularly at the centre, and on the ways they rejuvenate and illuminate this old chestnut of a play, and you'll find this one of the best Tempests ever.

Gerald Berkowitz

Old Vic Theatre
Summer 2010 

An article in the programme for The Tempest (in repertory with As You Like It, as part of The Bridge Project, a mix of British and American actors) outlines some of the moral, religious, philosophical and geopolitical interpretations Shakespeare's play has received, but one of the virtues of Sam Mendes' production is that it does not impose any external meaning or directorial concept on the play, but just tries to stay out of its way as much as possible. 

The downside of this directorial discretion is a certain blandness, almost generating a wish for more in the way of interpretation, to give us a clearer vision of the play's meanings.

A nobleman stranded on an island with his young daughter has mastered magic and the island's resident spirits, and is now given the opportunity to exact vengeance on his enemies as they, too, land there. Will he, or will he have gained wisdom as well as power, and discovered the value of forgiveness and reintegration into the human community? 

Director Mendes' stand-back attitude is symbolised in part by the almost bare stage, with the theatre's walls visible, and little more than the magic circle in the centre as scenery or props. 

I've seen Prosperos driven by rage or egotism or a sense of justice, but Stephen Dillane makes him enervated and exhausted, as if his years in exile have worn him down and he must now drag out his last reserves of strength to work out his final scheme. The problem is that, while it makes sense in theory as a characterisation, in practice it give us little sense of the man to latch onto, little with which to decide whether we sympathise. 

The same problem of the desire not to inject too much resulting in giving us too little affects Christian Camargo's performance as Ariel, as Camargo invests the sprite with a bemused boredom through much of the play, watching the humans with some of his cousin Puck's feeling of 'What fools these mortals be,'  though without Puck's accompanying enjoyment of the sight. 

And I think that a fear of imposing too much nontextual meaning on Caliban results in Ron Cephas Jones being left with almost no character at all to play, when we really want some guidance in how to respond to him. 

Juliet Rylance and Edward Bennett are attractive and believable as the young lovers, and while I grant that Shakespeare gives them little more than generic young lovers to play, it would be nice if they had added some individualising touches. 

Well, you can see the main thrust of this review - the production doesn't get in Shakespeare's way, which is more than you can say of some, and particularly if you know the play or previous productions and can fill in some of the missing overtones, this is a quite adequate experience. 

But it doesn't add anything to the play either, and that's its limitation.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Haymarket Theatre
Autumn 2011

If you have never seen The Tempest before, you will find Trevor Nunn's new production, amazingly his first attempt at the play, easy to follow and frequently entertaining. If you have seen other productions you may have a sense of deja vu, as Nunn has gone for a simple, direct and almost textbook staging, and there will be few surprises in performances or interpretation. 

And that, of course, may be one of this production's greatest virtues. With no arbitrary directorial vision imposed on it, and with only occasional special stage effects (flying for Ariel, etc.) that are in fact generally pretty lame, the evening is driven by a few strong performances and mildly hampered by a few weak ones. 

Foremost among the strengths is Ralph Fiennes playing a younger than usual (i.e. middle-aged) Prospero, a man with real passion and energy, and not necessarily all the wisdom of the ages. 

Since this is at least partly a play about a man with a vengeance choosing to forgive, it enriches the play to have a Prospero not so locked into his ways that he cannot change and young enough to contemplate a new life. 

There is nice support from Elisabeth Hopper, making Miranda a believable teenager, and Michael Benz's Ferdinand, amiably idiotic as a youngster in love, while James Simmons as the King and Andrew Jarvis as Gonzalo bring attractive hints of depth to their secondary characters.

Nicholas Lyndhurst gets second billing in the minor role of Trinculo though neither he nor Clive Wood as Stephano is able to make the two dreariest clowns in all of Shakespeare any funnier than they ever are. 

Giles Terera gives such a familiar performance as Caliban that I had to check the program to see if I had encountered him in the role before. I hadn't it's just that I've seen (and you probably have as well) other actors doing exactly the same things throughout. And Tom Byam Shaw's Ariel is almost as invisible as the text says he is, leaving very little impression. 

So this is not a Tempest for the ages or even for a lifetime's memories. But it's a solid production, a good introduction to the play and a good vehicle for its star.

Gerald Berkowitz

RSC at The Roundhouse
Summer 2012

By far the most successful of the RSC's 'Shipwreck' season (with Twelfth Night and The Comedy of Errors), David Farr's Tempest delivers on every level, as pageant, as warm comedy, and as spiritual drama.

I knew something special was afoot when Ariel (Sandy Grierson) first appeared, as a virtual twin to Jonathan Slinger's Prospero, two thin bald men in identical tattered suits such a brilliant conceit I can hardly believe that none of the dozens of other productions of this play I've seen have thought of it. 

I later read designer Jon Bausor's programme note, in which he says the idea was to suggest Prospero's dictatorial nature by putting his attending spirits in uniforms. But surely every audience member will get the same impression I did, of Ariel as a projection or reflection of something within Prospero. 

And since the dramatic backbone of the play lies in Prospero's becoming able to give up his magic and rejoin the human community, his farewell to Ariel at the end is here a touching visual symbol of giving up a part of himself. 

Certainly Jonathan Slinger shows us a very understandable and sympathetic Prospero, a naturally mild-mannered man driven close to madness by injustice and isolation and saved at the last moment by the rediscovery of the ability to forgive and become ordinary again. 

Sandy Grierson's Ariel is refreshingly forceful and unfey without being too bolshie, while Amer Hlehel's quite human Caliban gives some force to his claim to being misused. 

Stephano and Trinculo are usually two of the dreariest clowns in all of Shakespeare, but Bruce MacKinnon and Felix Hayes actually make them funny and rather sweet in their stupidity, while Emily Taaffe and Solomon Israel are appropriately young, attractive and essentially faceless as the lovers. 

The masque and the other bits of spectacle and stage magic are for once quite lovely rather than the usual dreary interruptions in the play, so that this Tempest is enchanting for beginners my audience had several school groups with nary a fidget while rich enough in new and evocative touches to capture the most hardened veteran.

Gerald Berkowitz

Donmar at King's Cross Theatre 
Autumn 2016

Phyllida Lloyd directs a new all-female modern-dress Tempest to play alongside revivals of her 2012 Julius Caesar and 2014 Henry IV in a short repertory season in a temporary theatre behind King's Cross Station. 

As with the other two, Lloyd imagines the play being performed by inmates of a women's prison, though as with the other two, any enrichment or new insights into the play are minimal, and the device still looks more like a feeble way of explaining away the all-woman cast, as if audiences really needed such an explanation. 

Fortunately the frame doesn't get in the way too much, and can easily be ignored (which is what I suggest). 

What we get is an intimate and frequently inventive production that finds most of what is great about the play. 

Harriet Walter is a cold and officious Prospero until exactly the right moment when Ariel reminds her of her humanity to make the difficult conscious decision to forgive her enemies and rejoin the human community. 

Sheila Atim gives Ferdinand more personality than is often the case, though Leah Harvey can't do much with Miranda, and Jade Anouka's Ariel is a surprising blank, with the actress never forging a real relationship with Prospero. 

Sophie Stanton's Caliban is more comic than beastly, though not really much of either, but Stefano and Trinculo, usually the two most boring clowns in all of Shakespeare, are actually enjoyable thanks to judicious cutting and attractive underplaying by Jackie Clune and Karen Dunbar. 

Prospero's masque is a high-energy mix of Shakespeare, pop music, dance and a lovely staging effect, and the audience is inventively conscripted into making Prospero's farewell to his powers a moment of real stage magic.

Gerald Berkowitz

Barbican Theatre 
Summer 2017

The last time Simon Russell Beale played in The Tempest for the RSC was 1994, when he was an angry and rebellious Ariel to Alec McCowen's blithely colonial Prospero. 

Now he returns as Prospero and, as is almost always the case with this actor, he is the most interesting element in a production that can boast of several other strong performances and some much-vaunted computer-generated special effects (about which more later).

Beale is a little slow to reveal his Prospero, but when he does, it is a moving and insightful interpretation. 

This is a Prospero who seems completely at ease with both his isolation and his magical powers, only to discover with shock the degree to which he has been seduced by both and to have real difficulty giving up either. 

The first hints of a complacency-shaking self-discovery come in an unexpected place, in 'Our revels now are ended', as the actor shows the character startled to hear himself say out loud that power and glory are but illusions and vanity. 

When Mark Quartley's Ariel suggests that Prospero should have more sympathy for his fellow humans, Beale has Prospero react with an anger that shakes him, and 'Ye elves of hills' shows his addiction to magic wrestling hard against his determination to give it up. 

I've seen Prosperos who happily abdicated the burden of power and Prosperos who grew as humans when they decided to give it up. I've never seen an actor show as clearly and movingly how very difficult that decision had to be. 

Much has been made of an artistic partnership between the RSC, the computer company Intel and the computer design group The Imaginarium Studios to create onstage magic for this production, but I have to say it isn't very impressive. 

The onstage Ariel is occasionally accompanied by large-scale projections of the character, sometimes in more elaborate costume or make-up. 

We are told that these were created by dressing actor Mark Quartley in a sensor-equipped suit and capturing his movements to create a base for the computer-generated images, in a process similar to Andy Serkis's Gollum in films. 

But the projections just look like films of the actor in fuller costume and they are not synchronised with his actions onstage, so there is nothing particularly magical about the effect, however long-way-around they went to achieve it. 

(Actually, the only time the projections really work is when the operatic masque of goddesses is set against some very colourful naive-art paintings of pastoral scenes.) 

Another reason you won't spend much time looking at the giant projected Ariel is that the real live one onstage is far more interesting. 

Though director Gregory Doran hasn't given Mark Quartley much of a character to play, the performer does move with a dancer's grace and beauty throughout, making this physical Ariel seem more spirit-like and less earthbound than the one projected on the screens above.

Everyone else in the cast underplays nicely which is a way of saying that director Doran has guided them all to a unified style that serves the play effectively. 

Joe Dixon's Caliban is slow of thought and rough of manners, but neither ridiculous nor animalistic. Jenny Rainsford makes Miranda a bit of a tomboy and a bit of an Amazon, ranking her strengths above her naivete, and James Hayes and Simon Trinder actually manage to be funny (which far too few other pairings ever do) as the clowns Stephano and Trinculo.

Ignore most of the special effects and keep your eyes on the real actors onstage, and you will find much to enjoy in this Tempest.

Gerald Berkowitz

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