Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Theatre review: The Tempest (Shakespeare's Globe)

This year's Globe season goes under the very vague banner of "Season of Plenty," which might as well be called "Stuff! We have lots of stuff!" But for the three large-scale Shakespeare productions at the heart of the season, there has been a bit more of a specific theme, with the three plays most overtly concerned with the supernatural taking the stage. A Midsummer Night's Dream and Macbeth will follow but first up it's The Tempest. The titular storm has been raised by spirits, to cause the shipwreck of the King of Naples and his party, on the way back from a wedding. Twelve years ago, they wronged Prospero, Duke of Milan, and usurped his throne. Now he's become a sorcerer who rules a deserted island, where his enemies wash up - and Prospero has a plan to regain his dukedom and unite the two royal families.

Following his Olivier-winning Falstaff three years ago, Roger Allam returns to the Globe to play Prospero. I had high hopes that he would bring more humour than most actors to the role of the grumpy magician, and I wasn't disappointed. Prospero only really gets one funny line, and of course Allam nails it, but his dry, drawling delivery brings wit to much more of the role - could anyone else make the word "therefore" so funny?

But his is also quite an interesting take in general. Not the darkest Prospero I've ever seen but he's also far from the genial old Gandalf that used to be a popular interpretation. Allam's Prospero is a politician: He's a schemer who's using the possibility of marrying off his daughter as part of the machinations that'll get him his dukedom back. I often feel like Prospero's ousting from Milan was for the best, as he had so little interest in ruling the place, when he could lock himself into his library instead. Allam's take though is a Machiavellian one, not the nicest man and prone to anger, but probably as capable of running a state as any of the other candidates we see.

Elsewhere, though, Jeremy Herrin's production is fairly no-frills, a straightforward telling that leaves some of the faults in the play itself exposed - such as how tedious the Antonio/Sebastian (Jason Baughan and William Mannering) subplot is, or how the play's final hour feels like a constant wrapping-up that always has one more subplot to get out of the way. And not all the performances light up the stage - the whole of Alonso's (Peter Hamilton Dyer) party are rather underpowered, and Pirate Jessie Buckley is a bit of a one-note Miranda.

On the more positive side of the cast Colin Morgan returns to the stage to play a free-running, naughty schoolboy Ariel with a spectacular harpy scene, whose inability to remember his own life story actually makes sense here, but whose relationship with Prospero I would have liked to see a bit more clearly defined. Ariel also seems to be being played as much more aware of the audience than the other characters, which makes sense for the character but not so much in this venue, where there's so much interaction with the audience. A case in point being Globe regular James Garnon, whose excellent, simian Caliban subjects the groundlings to more indignities than I've ever seen in a single show here (and whose version of the popular "incomprehension when a plane flies overhead" meme is the best I've seen.) Also good are Joshua James, who's been a rising star at the Royal Court and here takes on a Ferdinand turned into Prospero's puppet in a well-choreographed early scene; and Sam Cox's scene-stealing, surprisingly acrobatic old lush Stephano.

So Herrin's Tempest is something of a mixed bag. There's many elements that are workmanlike and there's relationships and themes I really would have liked to see explored more. But there's also some really well worked-out moments, notably the wedding masque, often a low point in many productions, which here becomes a hilarious dance sequence thanks to the grudging way with which Prospero gives away his daughter. A step up from last year's lacklustre Globe centrepieces, certainly, but let's hope there's even more improvement to come.

The Tempest by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 18th of August at Shakespeare's Globe.

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes including interval.

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