FringeReview UK 2017
Gregory Doran’s RSC Tempest builds outwards from a magical kernel: that entranced halt to action we can take the Masque for, and Simon Russell Beale. Set designer Stephen Brimson Lewis has collaborated with Andy Serkis’ Imaginarium studios led by Ben Lumsden and Tawny Schlieski of Intel to map a little world – where Ariel is doubled with a 3D version responding to sensors on his body. Simon Spencer’s lighting plays or withdraws audibly. The set’s boned in a broken-apart old ship’s skeleton. Finn Ross’s video backdrop of clouds culminates in the Masque. Jeremy Dunn’s and Andrew Franks’ sound might peak early, but elsewhere wrap a live quartet and vocals. Paul Englishby’s music comes into its own here. Lucy Cullingford’s movement peaks in the Masque.
You won’t forget the spectacle. But it’s the lonely spectators of their own powers that’ll beat on your mind long after the psychedelia fades; both are necessary.
Gregory Doran’s RSC Tempest builds outwards from a magical kernel: that entranced halt to action we can take the Masque for, and Simon Russell Beale. His Prospero wills a loss of agency, but particularly intimacy: Miranda yes, but Mark Quartley’s Ariel at least as much. And Beale’s in purgatorial fires for much of the action. Few have invested ‘my delicate Ariel’ with such querulous command and vulnerability. The agonizing on Beale’s face bursts with demons buried certain fathoms deep. We might be drawn round the circuit of Prospero’s magic fires, but it’s his face that draws us near. Even so, this is a Tempest where everything whirled must land.
Those who find The Tempest’s Act Four Masque an irritating eddy best curtailed or cut altogether are probably thinning, as we appreciate more of its function at James’ Court, just how it pivots the drama as it gathers to a head. One clue’s in the ribbon of text: one of the shortest of the canon, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, another play freighted with potential spectacle.
This Tempest changes the play for other than its stunning design but that itself’s a triumph and restoration. Set designer Stephen Brimson Lewis has collaborated with Andy Serkis’ Imaginarium studios led by Ben Lumsden and Tawny Schlieski of Intel to map a little world made cunningly – most humanly where Quartley’s balletically torqued Ariel is doubled with a 3D version responding to sensors on his body to replicate his action writ large, though also live on stage, veined like a barium meal. Thus Quartley can engorge himself to a bat’s flight or baulk demonically over the ‘three men of sin’ as hapless courtiers cower under scarlet slashes.
The most arresting detail lies in Prospero’s confronting Ariel with the memory of how he found him cloven in a pine for twelve years. The stage ravels up a clutch of roots flickering round, then encasing Ariel: harrowed-up he agonizes in memory. It’s visceral, chilling. Another usage, of retractable fabric tubes slotting into each other dropped to allow the spectacle of slowly sinking mariners, furnishes another miraculous engine.
That’s the start of wonders, where Simon Spencer’s lighting plays or withdraws almost audibly. The set’s boned in a broken-apart old ship’s skeleton with split levels ideally light-tilted in the opening storm; it mostly bulks over proceedings like a gaunt scaffolded ruin. Finn Ross’s video backdrop of clouds continually build and meld, the whole space suffused with intense Tyrian dyes culminating in the Masque. Jeremy Dunn’s and Andrew Franks’ sound might peak early, but elsewhere wrap the sweet-voiced isle with a live quartet and vocals.
Paul Englishby’s music comes into its own here – necessarily in the songs. These are tangy and fresh, though Englishby’s memorable three-part settings with the marvellous trio of Iris, Ceres and Juno (Ellie Condron, Samantha Hay, Jennifer Witton) are the highlight.
Beale’s edgily-distracted Prospero is answered by Jenny Rainsford’s Miranda. Strong-voiced, never squallish or girly, she’s perhaps too mature for a fifteen-year-old though there’s delicate confusion as she encounters Daniel Easton’s wholesome Ferdinand, where she looks blankly at a handshake and makes light of the log Easton groans to shift. Easton’s strong on bafflement. Rainsford’s great moment comes with ardent plainness. ‘I am your wife’ she tells Ferdinand: it’s heart-stopping. Though later Rainsford’s limber on making eyes at all the brave new world to Easton’s palpable discomfort. ‘In Naples she will learn a thing or two’ James Reeves’ epigram on Miranda concludes, Thersites-like. You remember the ardent declaration, though, and believe it’ll hold.
The courtiers who’ve lost Ferdinand are well served by James Tucker’s warmth as the penitent King of Naples; Doran’s made much of his reconcilitory moment with Prospero, contrasting with Jonathan Broadbent’s Antonio, Prospero’s barely repentant brother. The Print Room’s memorable Tempest took this brother farther and in its stripped-back grainier, not rougher magic unfolded as few recent Tempests have. Here Doran again shifts redemptive ground. Sebastian, Naples’ brother is leaked away by Tom Turner’s nicely slow-on-the-uptake usurper.
But of all revolutions on the island – there are two active ones with Ferdinand and Ariel grumbling – it’s Joseph Mydell’s Gonzalo who pronounces the most comprehensive treasons, honourably Utopian. Mydell etches politic behaviour, a shrewdness belying his wit wound up and striking as others have it. He’s attuned to danger and turns beneficence upon it.
As well he might with his own bumbling circle. Elsewhere that’s raised to an artform. Simon Trinder’s sparky Trinculo is detached enough from even his drunken butler friend Stephano’s orbit to render his eccentric one a thing of trepidation; he might take an audience member’s drink or squat in a seat. Trinder’s essentially heedless world contrasts with James Hayes’ more meanly-bent Stephano, a man conscious of the riches he admits in the day-job to latch onto the ‘trash’ here.
Its Joe Dixon’s word and as Caliban he hulks out his lost inheritance, powerfully-voiced with vestigial magic of his own. No colonial servitor, you believe he’s a delicate monster displaced, someone who’d not strive in his mother Sycorax’s Algiers or anywhere but where he might ends his solitary days. His action when Prospero hands him the staff he’s not buried but snapped to kindling is transformative: he rears into power.
It’s those with powers who build most. Shifting visuals aren’t stupefying, but clear. In the Masque David Hockney-type images shimmer in acrylic brightness back into subtler Lucy-in-the-Sky effects so riveting elsewhere. The shift to Ceres’ August-blonded scene of harvest is mesmerising as is the trio of singers with attendant spirits where Lucy Cullingford’s movement reaches its apogee. Then there’s the moment where Ferdinand and Miranda are lifted up to just kissing distance and Prospero’s twitchy moments come.
Beale’s techy Prospero, guilty his mured-up study has cost him legitimacy with Milan’s people, knots up. The exchange when Quartley’s ‘If you now behold them, your affections/Would become tender’ leads to Beale’s repeat roars at ‘Mine would, sir, were I human.’ It’s the apex of Beale’s furies, guilt tearing retribution. Only Ariel sees Prospero bare. Prospero’s ‘Then I shall’ is swallowed.
The way Beale can hardly look at Quartley as the latter with strange reluctance hardly breezes past, tell us this is not a ‘were I human’ but humanized Ariel. Quartley beautifully riffs off Beale’s dark, sometimes with his own, eyes as expressive as his words. He proves a more than worthy foil to Beale, this dynamic of magical and mortal proving the essential tug of Doran’s vision. It’s more than a second child Prospero’s let go, adding to the plea for release straight after, his prayer truly purgatorial.
This production realizes that conversation between state-of-the-art 1611 effects and now more fully than ever before. It’s an Ariel-like leap and any realisation of the masque elements so central to this drama need to absorb it. The riven letting-go of Miranda and above all a man’s potency relinquished along with his moral son sounds deeper plummets still: including letting a dead son go to spirit though daughters marry. Beyond that there’s a return, as Delmore Schwartz once wrote: ‘in dreams begin responsibilities’ including the end of dreaming.