The Tempest

William Shakespeare

RSC at the Roundhouse

(2002)

Review by Philip Fisher

After a series of relatively gimmicky Shakespeare productions, Michael Boyd's Tempest for the Royal Shakespeare Company is refreshing. There are no American accents, trains or modern clothes. This is a return to Shakespeare for the purist.

This does not mean that this is a dull production. Boyd uses the massive space at the Roundhouse very well with much of the action taking place at a kind of mezzanine level on a raised platform in the centre and a narrow walkway between the pit and the audience. He also makes much of the circus skills of his players many of whom show extraordinary courage as they ascend and descend ladders and ropes 50 ft or more above the ground.

The main parts are all very well played. Malcolm Storry as Prospero manages to combine a grim, tired authoritarianism with compassion. Sirine Saba as his daughter, Miranda, catches the childish innocence of the part perfectly. Her shaking excitement at seeing a young man for the first time is very moving. The third key player is Kananu Kirimi as a West Indian, female Ariel. She is a very sprightly sprite constantly hopping around as she purveys her generally innocent mischief.

The West Indian theme for the natives is also carried along by Geff Francis' alopecia-suffering Caliban. His rich accent is more authentic than Ariel's and somehow suggests the very topical theme of racism as part of the mix. He first appears harnessed like a dog and his future behaviour can be seen as either the cause or the effect of his enslavement by the otherwise humane Prospero.

Boyd is very good at creating dramatic set-pieces. On three or four occasions, there are little cameos that catch a mood. The plotting between Brian Protheroe's wicked Antonio and Tom Beard's evil Sebastian over the sleeping King of Naples (Keith Bartlett) tells as much as much about politics today as in the 16th century. There also lighter moments particularly those involving the very funny Trinculo, Simon Gregor, and Jerome Willis as the honourable Gonzalo.

There is a very good combination between the advance of the drama and scenes of artistic beauty generally involving the circus performers. In particular, the entertainment that Prospero conjures up for his daughter and her lover is very beautiful. It starts with a parade of freaks headed by Ceres who looks like a Martian Carmen Miranda. It then develops into a hymn to love with a final erotic trapeze act that simultaneously amuses and takes the breath away.

The final impression one gets from viewing this sad tale of betrayal is of Shakespeare's great understanding of life. He effortlessly explores power and delusion, treachery, remorse and forgiveness.

There is a very traditional feel to this production which would have fitted as well in the Globe as it does the Roundhouse. You can imagine that if Shakespeare saw it himself, he would have approved.

The Tempest is in repertory until 22nd June.

This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.