There are those who feel that criticising Shakespeare is the theatrical equivalent of apostasy, and to accept just one flaw is to admit the existence of a crack that could fatally undermine his genius. Yet while zealots shout heresy, it cannot be denied that Shakespeare wrote a lot of plays and that not all are masterpieces. Each century has its favourites but time seems to have led to the emergence of an A-list and B-list; in the modern age whither have gone Pericles, King John or Henry VI Parts I, II and III?
But there are problems even among his more popular outings; I would argue that Henry V is a second-rate play enlivened only by Shakespeare’s ability for heart-swelling, grandiose speeches (indeed it is hard to even write the sentence without wanting to refer to how he can ‘stiffen the sinews [and] summon up the blood’). Equally if I could go through life without experiencing the entire post-interval acts from Romeo & Juliet then I would be all the happier for it.
Yet The Tempest has always proved a more challenging option. It is held up as the scholarly choice for greatest Shakespeare play. The temptation
for academic insight is too much to bear. It is his last solo play, his farewell to the stage. Prospero can easily be seen as Shakespeare writing himself into the story. As he waves goodbye to the mysterious magical island, his powers fading, how can it not be seen in this light?
This dry academic interest inevitably strips much of the fun out of the play. The Tempest has magic and monsters, comedy and romance. It starts with a shipwreck and teeters towards tragedy. At the very least it should be entertaining. However too many productions get wrapped up in Prospero and it becomes little more than an opportunity for an actor to wrestle with Shakespeare’s last great part, and get under the skin of the man himself (and if that is the aim then I recommend any actor look no further than the challenge of Edward Bond’s Bingo if they want to take on Shakespeare directly).
Cheek By Jowl’s Russian company produced a superb version in 2011, and they did so through an inventiveness and an absurd but near malicious humour that sits easily with Prospero’s casual cruelty towards Caliban and recognition of Ariel being not far removed from the trickster sprite of Robin Goodfellow. If this production falls short in comparison it is because Cheek By Jowl have spent 20 years building a reputation worthy of generating international acclaim. However Thick of Thieves can be applauded for approaching a challenging play with spirited energy and an appealing ingenuity that makes best use of the limited resources offered by a small black-box space. They have set out to entertain rather than inform, and if I left having learnt little I didn’t already know then I must also admit to leaving having not enjoyed Shakespeare this much for quite some time.