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The Tempest

William Shakespeare
Shakespeare's Globe
(2005)

production photo

Three men are perhaps more commonly seen in a boat but in Tim Carroll's unusual version of The Tempest, they are not only shipwrecked from one but then proceed to inhabit a dramatis personae of eleven.

This is really hard work and the trio are to be congratulated at the end of any two-hour performance, but never more so than on the days when they play a matinee as well.

At the performance under review, when Mark Rylance, commencing his final season as artistic director of the theatre, spoke the line "what strength's my own which is most faint" the whole audience must surely have felt for him and his fast-failing voice.

It is a little inaccurate to suggest that the three actors are the only performers in this cut down production. They are shadowed by three modern, although classically-trained, dancers who perform a variety of roles, dressed as sexy, leather-clad biker chicks. This image rather clashes with the more traditional dress worn by the three male actors.

Music is provided by a six-strong pyramid of singers with every colour of voice from counter-tenor to bass.

Those who have read this far will understand that here is a Tempest unlike anything that they will have seen at the Globe or probably anywhere else before. The conception is perhaps more likely to be expected from a director such as Robert Lepage, who produced an innovative one-man Hamlet.

With only three actors, albeit accompanied by dancing shadows, there is a fair degree of confusion even for those steeped in the history and past performances of the play. For the typical Globe beginner, possibly struggling with the English language, a full understanding of the plot would be a real achievement. In this, lies the production's weakness.

You kind of gather that a bunch of people have got shipwrecked on an island. This is occupied by the dispossessed old man from Milan and his daughter, together with a couple of funny blokes (though one is androgynous).

It seems as if there are some noblemen and some pretty dodgy types who have been shipwrecked, the latter getting into league with the local troublemaker. There is also a bit of a love story involving the innocent daughter (who has only seen three men in her life) and a rather nice chap off the ship. Oh yes - and they all live happily ever after. Any greater depth of meaning than this is well buried.

The production's strengths overcome this since it is richly entertaining and particularly strong on the comic aspects of this late Shakespearean play. Two different scenes really stand out as exemplary.

The wooing of innocent islander Miranda (Edward Hogg) by the hefty, bearded Alex Hassell's Ferdinand, overlooked by the former's father Mark Rylance playing Prospero is hilarious, but even this is outdone. The drunken scenes between the enslaved Caliban, dishonest Trinculo and drunken Stephano will long live in the memory for their knockabout comedy and charm.

The drama and poetry sometimes struggle to make themselves known and understood; and this is only in part down to Rylance's sore throat. The clever use of a hangman's nose on a long rope as anything and everything including extra characters helps to delineate changes but some scenes can be baffling, if one allows a lapse in concentration (or even if one does not).

All three actors give a good account of themselves but Alex Hassell really excels in a variety of different guises and also has the vocal power to outshout the numerous jets flying overhead. With his circus skills, on one occasion he even appears about to emulate them.

The trio of dancers sometimes add to the meaning but more often provide artistic entertainment that reaches its zenith in a couple of set pieces.

As a serious version of Shakespeare's final play, this production might not be regarded as a success. However, as an entertainment that might please the kind of audiences that flock to the Globe, it almost certainly will.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher