Finding magic in The Tempest

The Tempest – Thick as Thieves @ Hope Theatre, until 18 July 2015 (tickets)

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 The tempest hope theatre 2emergence 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.

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Spotting a summer celebrity – 2011

 Five to watch

It’s that time of year again when those celebrities, or those unfortunate to have missed out on the chance to spend the next four months sitting in hotel lobbies desperately promoting a $200 million turkey to  hacks still willing to buy into the illusion that Pirates of the Caribbean represents a significant addition to cinema’s canon, remember that theatre represents their true calling along’.  We can forget for the moment that most will have disappeared back State-side, ready to add a new-found gravitas to an already embarrassingly padded C.V, just in time for the festival circuit and instead enjoy gawping at people we normally see in while chowing down on a bucket of popcorn the size of a small child.

5) Rupert Everett & Diana Rigg

Pygmalion – Garrick  Theatre, from the  25 May 2011

First off, sadly Diana Rigg is not due to play Eliza Doolittle, although that would be an officially awesome reworking of George Bernard’s Shaw classic. Instead she is down to play Mrs Higgins, while Rupert Everett reprises the role of Henry Higgins that he first played as part of the Chichester Festival.

GBS is having a slightly revival of late, with recent major productions of St Joan and Mrs Warren’s Profession gracing Londdon, after a long period of having been pushed into the shadows. I am sure the imperious Diana Rigg will be splendid but Everett is the more interesting choice; he, after all, is a man who never quite made it onto the Hollywood A-list (for reasons that may or may not have to do with him being openly gay) who will be playing a character who works to fundamentally change Eliza so that she is more socially acceptable. One wonders what Freud would have to say about that?

Celebrity enjoyment factor: C

4) Jude Law

Anna Christie – Donmar Warehouse, 04 August – 08 October 2011

Jude Law loses out in the battle of the Hamlets (see 2. below) but this is partly down to the fact that I don’t really know as much as I should about Eugene O’Neill and his plays. Wikipedia tells me that this one the Pulitzer Prize back in 1922 so I am guess it is going to be pretty good and Long Day’s Journey into the Night is generally regarded as an American classic.

The Donmar rarely puts on poor productions and Jude Law, even before Hamlet, is no mug on stage. Just as he was starting out in Hollywood (way, way before the Jude Law overload of 2004, which saw him opening 6 films in one year and the public getting more and more sick of the sight of him – the nadir probably being the execrable remake of Alfie) he left an indelible impression in the Young Vic’s production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. If this production is half as good as that then, following a reasonably strong Hamlet, we may be seeing the moulding of Law as a strong presence on the British stage.

Celebrity enjoyment factor: B-

3) Ralph Fiennes

The Tempest – Theatre Royal  Haymarket, 27 August – 29 October 2011 

Coming as part of Trevor Nunn’s impressive first season as artistic director of the Theatre Royal Haymarket (we have already seen a well reviewed, and star-heavy, Rattigan revival in Flare Path and we can look forward to Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead in early summer), The Tempest has drawn one of the few actors who seems at ease on stage as he is on camera. Ralph Fiennes, who has previously excelled as Julius Caesar and has been busy with his directoral debut, a modern-day version of Coriolanus, so is clearly no stranger to Shakepeare (even if many of his younger fans may recognise him more clearly as Voldemort in Harry Potter).

The only question-mark is his age. Not yet 50, Fiennes would seem to be a very young Prospero (even if Miranda is only supposed to 16); traditionally a part that actors take as they approach the end of their careers. The question is whether Fiennes has the gravitas of a man who was cast adrift when his daughter was just a baby. In lesser hands it may be more of a concern but looking at some of his career highlights to date – Quiz Show, Schindler’s List, The English Patient, The Reader – it is clear this is a man who understands and enjoys complex roles, and this should be an exciting proposition.

Celebrity enjoyment factor: B

2) David Tennant & Catherine Tate

Much Ado About Nothing – Wyndhams  Theatre, from May 16 2011

Admittedly this isn’t exactly Hollywood but this is about as close as we get in the UK. The Doctor and one of the most left-field choices of companion turning it around and going head to head in one of Shakespeare’s most ferocious and ferociously funny comedies. Tennant showed in Hamlet that he has a quick-silver tongue and Tate has demonstrated a motor-mouth on numerous occasions; even without the pre-history of Doctor Who behind them, this would be a Benedict and Beatrice worthy of note. 

My only gripe is the outrageously expensive ticket prices, god only knows whether they plan to somehow incorporate time travel into the show but with Stalls seats running at £61 and the Circle for £51 there had better be something splendid to justify the price. While it would be naive to expect reasonably priced tickets in the West End, it is profoundly depressing when a show which will clearly appeal to children and those who don’t always go to the theatre will cost a family of four over £200 for seats that are not right up in the gods (spending over 2 hours with that little leg room is enough to put people off Shakespeare for life). If people complain about the sustainability of theatre then productions like this, which seem to exclude new audiences through price alone, should take a large part of the blame.

Celebrity enjoyment factor: A-

1) Kevin Spacey

Richard III – Old Vic Theatre, from 18 June 2011 before an international tour

If you, like me, has been more than a little underwhelmed by Kevin Spacey’s period as artistic director for the Old Vic then hopefully here is the big project you have been waiting for.  It seems that there have been too many small scale American plays that haven’t resonated with audiences this side of the Atlantic and when Spacey has been on stage we have seen nothing of the tour de force performance that brought him international acclaim in The Iceman Cometh.

Well if anything calls for a tour de force then it must be Richard III. One of the great ‘acting’ roles, Richard III must leave actors salivating. A great plot of intrigue and murder, one of the first anti-heroes; a king who is both crippled in mind and body. From the off… ‘Now is the winter of our discontent…’ this is a play crammed full of memorable lines and set-pieces. It can only be hoped that Spacey, under the direction of the reliable Mendes, who clearly knows how to work with film actors, really lets himself go and retakes the stage by storm.

Celebrity enjoyment factor: A