Well, this review is well out of date, I’m afraid. I managed to catch what I think was the last performance of the RSC’s The Tempest at the Barbican, directed by Gregory Doran, on the 18th August, a good two months ago.
I’m reasonably familiar with the play – I did a close reading of “Come unto these yellow sands” as part of the coursework for my degree, and I’ve read it a couple of times – but I’ve never seen it on stage before. So this is not so much a review as a series of scattered thoughts.
My general impression was that Doran didn’t particularly have anything to say about the text. Its USP, so to speak, involved giving Mark Quartley, who played Ariel, a motion-sensitive camera and projecting a CGI sprite on hanging screens at particularly dramatic moments. Which, given that you can access CGI literally at the flick of a switch nowadays, feels like a bit of a cheat onstage, and too over-the-top for The Tempest anyway; perhaps it would work in something like the riotous Midsummer Night’s Dream, but The Tempest is subtler and sadder and stranger, and, to my mind anyway, needs a magic more tenuous and less obvious.
Simon Russell Beale’s Prospero, on the other hand, was fascinating and not at all sympathetic: veering unpredictably between generous patriarch and jealous, insecure tyrant, afraid of losing what power he has over his daughter and the people of his island, but tired of his isolation. If the Barbican Tempest was about anything, it was about the tragedy of old age, the loss of it. In this context, I found the final speech of the play – “As you from crimes would pardon’d be,/Let your indulgence set me free” – really quite interesting; a fourth-wall-breaking appeal to the audience to applaud Prospero, end the play, redeem his faults, give his story meaning and purpose through the closure of an ending. I actually did some work on similar endings to plays of the period for my degree: plays like Thomas Dekker’s Shoemaker’s Apprentice and Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour, which end in judgement scenes which also tend to break the fourth wall. There’s a sense in which Doran’s Tempest leaves the questions and contradictions of Shakespeare’s text open for the audience to judge.
The play was most unsatisfactory, though, on its treatment of Caliban – in fact, I’d say it revealed exactly how much of a problem Caliban is in the original text. Like Prospero, Joe Dixon’s Caliban was unpredictable, veering between sympathetic and abhorrent; unlike Prospero, however, he was never given the benefit of the doubt – we were supposed to see him as comic relief at best, as monstrous at worst. It’s become commonplace to read Caliban as the colonised Other, and Doran’s refusal to engage with that, his decision to allow Prospero to drive Caliban off, the only character not to receive a consolatory happy ending, was vaguely troubling.
The Tempest as text is quite notoriously slippery – it’s been categorised by some critics as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”, precisely because it’s difficult to say exactly what it is and what it’s for. In this context, the little uneasinesses of Doran’s Tempest make a sort of sense: they’re an attempt to render the text reasonably faithfully onto the stage; to create a kind of “neutral” theatrical version of The Tempest. In other words: this is conservative Shakespeare, an attempt (despite the CGI gimmickry) to represent Shakespeare’s text authentically. It’s a job that it does well! As you’d expect from an RSC production, it’s very competent indeed – well-acted and well-staged. But it’s not a memorable thing.