Gala Theatre, Durham, and touring
The last Tempest I saw was Rupert Goold's version for the RSC last year: cold, icy and curiously passionless. Barrie Rutter's version for Northern Broadsides is its antithesis: full of warmth, music and magic. And humour, for Rutter finds humour in Prospero as well as the obvious comedy in the antics of Stephano and Trinculo.
Perhaps more than any other of Shakespeare's plays, The Tempest presents an almost irresistible temptation to directors to impose a concept, so we have had Tempests which show the evils of colonialism, Tempests which see Prospero as Shakespeare saying farewell to his art, Tempests forced into the revenge tragedy mould... almost as many Tempests are there are directors. But Rutter, who both directs and plays Prospero, has allowed the text to speak for itself and gives us a Prospero whose desire for revenge is at war with his character. Certainly at the beginning his words suggest the strength of his determination but when Ferdinand and Miranda meet and fall in love, his doting love for his daughter, made clear from the outset, takes over and what was to have been revenge turns into a lesson in repentance and forgiveness.
There are many highlights in this production but, unfortunately, the opening scene is not one of them. The storm must be one of the most difficult scenes in Shakespeare to stage and Rutter's approach is a novel and interesting one - a mixture of the spoken word, seas shanties, lines from other songs in the play and the occasional what would, in opera, be called recitative. It didn't really work for me, but, having said that, I've never really been convinced by it in all the productions I've seen.
And then there is that long scene of exposition as Prospero tells Miranda and the audience the story so far. I defy any director to make that any more than a long scene of exposition as Prospero tells Miranda and the audience the story so far. I suppose that the first time you see it, you take it in and it doesn't bother you, but when you've seen it umpty-nine times....
As always with Northern Broadsides, the verse speaking is excellent. For the first-time audience member at one of their productions, the sound of northern voices rather than RP speaking Shakespeare must be a bit of a shock to the system - and there is quite a variety here, from Geordie to Teesside to Yorkshire to Scouse to Rutter's own Hull - but it works and gives an earthiness to the play which is very refreshing.
And the company's other signature ingredient - the original music by Conrad Nelson, played on a variety of instruments and sung by the cast - is, I think, at its best in this production. The song which closes the first half - "Ban Ban Ca-Caliban" - is a real show-stopper in every sense of the word.
Then there are the radically different interpretations of Caliban and Ariel. The former is not a deformed monster but a slim almost-human whose essential humanity Michael Hugo brings out, especially in the "The isle is full of noises" speech, which is extremely poignant. And there is not one Ariel but three, sometimes speaking and moving in chorus, sometimes individually, each with her (they are all female: Nicola Gardner, Simone Saunders and Belinda Everett) own characteristics but each complementing the others. It's an interesting idea and one which works well in a number of places, especially in the masque which Rutter retains but in a shortened form.
Inevitably the audience responds to the comedy of the Trinculo/Stephano scenes and Conrad Nelson (an hilariously camp Trinculo) and Simon Holland Roberts make the most of what Shakespeare offers - and more!
Lis Evans' setting is simple - a two-tier circular rostrum with what starts as a ship's mast and becomes a tree on stage left and the array of musical instruments stage right - and is beautifully, and usually very warmly, lit by Daniella Beattie.
This is a fine production, with Northern Broadsides' usual clarity and sensitivity to the language, which stays true to the text without directorial gloss getting in the way of Shakespeare.
"The Tempest" is at the Gala until Saturday 19th May, and thern moves to Spalding, Buxton, Glasgow and Richmond (N Yorks)
Reviewer: Peter Lathan