On Wednesday night BBC Two broadcast Rupert Goold’s film of King Charles III with a script by Mike Bartlett. It is on BBC iPlayer for the next four weeks, and if you watch nothing else in that time, make time for this. It’s a wonderful 90 minutes of beautifully achieved, bold, provocative, innovative, smartly subversive television, with a glorious performance from the late Tim Pigott-Smith at its heart. The plaudits have poured in, as I have little doubt they will continue to, and among the thoughtful press responses perhaps the most thoughtful is that by Mark Lawson for the Guardian. (Perhaps the most bizarre is ‘The BBC’s King Charles III inevitably contained plenty of howlers’ for — surprise! — the Mail, although treating the fantasy as a docu-drama is some kind of compliment.) Apart from expressing close-to-boundless enthusiasm for the film, I want here just to add a couple of thoughts about its status as television.
I watched this last night, and it’s the best thing I’ve seen on television in a long time. It’s a 90-minute adaptation of a play about when the current queen dies and Charles becomes king. It’s full of Shakespearean intrigue, and the language is a nod to Shakespeare, with blank verse, iambic pentameter, and some odd word order at times. But interestingly, it took me a while to notice the language; I think many viewers won’t even spot it, they’ll just think it’s a bit weird. (You know, the royals speaking funny…)
This article, by John Wyver, who produces films and filmed theater productions, examines how subversive this production is. And when you think about it, he’s right; there are many layers around this film, from the subject matter to the language, to the context of it being produced and broadcast on the BBC.
If you’re in the UK, watch this: it’s on the iPlayer for a few weeks.
Together with a new production of Julius Caesar, the RSC has started a run of Antony and Cleopatra. Much of the same cast is present in both plays (and will also be in Titus Andronicus, later this year), and the title roles are played by Anthony Byrne and Josette Simon. Using many of the same set elements and wardrobe, these two plays are of a piece, both in design and direction. Here, Iqbal Khan, who brought us 2015’s visceral Othello, takes the helm.
As much as I loved Julius Caesar, I was bored by Antony and Cleopatra. The first part of the production seemed aimless, with no solid direction in the plot. It was very hard to follow, in part because of Josette Simon’s strange delivery, but also because the various actors seemed to be trying to do very different things. Simon seemed to be acting like someone in a silent movie, but with words. Her speech was stilted, her gestures overdone, and it wasn’t clear whether this was meant to portray Cleopatra as somehow crazy, or whether it was just a mannered way of performing.
Anthony Byrne, however, was the star of the show. I’ve seen him for several years in the history plays, and recently as a wonderful Kent in last year’s King Lear, and it’s great to see this actor in a starring role. Byrne, while not young, is an actor with quite a future. He can be powerful and sensitive, with excellent movement, and he commands attention. His only problem is that his booming voice sometimes dominates the other actors, who project much less.
(Photos: Helen Maybanks for the RSC.)
The second part of this long production – three hours, plus a twenty minute intermission – is a bit more focused, but the struggles between Antony and Octavius Caesar seem trivial. Things are confusing, and Octavius Caesar, played by Ben Allen, is unconvincing, and doesn’t seem like a leader, but more like an angry child.
Andrew Woodall’s Enobarbus is one of the highlights of the show. I felt his Julius Caesar was a bit over the top, but here he is more restrained. His cockney accent may not have been necessary, but he projects more power in this play than he did in Julius Caesar.
The sets and lighting were magnificent, far more interesting than in Julius Caesar, but the beginning of the production was marred by a VERY LOUD, uninteresting dance piece. I don’t know why, but RSC productions use this technique often, and this type of dance number generally adds nothing to the production. The music doesn’t need to be that loud; the theater is quite small.
The ending, where Cleopatra has herself bitten by an asp, falls flat. Josette Simon’s over-the-top acting and the way she manipulates the small rubber snake just aren’t believable. This seems to be a trend at some RSC productions recently. Even some excellent productions – such as the 2015 Othello, or last year’s King Lear – drop the ball in the climactic scene.
In the end, this is a beautiful production, but it is muddled by trying to do too much, and by Josette Simon’s odd acting. I’ll see it again, to see if I was wrong, or to see if the production tightens up, but this is one of the more disappointing Shakespeare plays I’ve seen at the RSC. I don’t expect every one of their Shakespeare productions to be excellent, and this one made me feel the way I did seeing last year’s Cymbeline.
Julius Caesar holds a special place in my heart. It was the first Shakespeare play I read, back in high school, and its many memorable lines ignited my love for Shakespeare’s language. I’ve been looking forward to seeing it at the Royal Shakespeare Company, as part of the current Rome season (together with Antony and Cleopatra), and the production I saw was wonderful. I saw a preview performance on March 16, and I can’t help but think that the RSC should have had a performance the day before – the Ides of March – but did not have one.
Julius Caesar is about politics, ambition, honor, and the consequences of taking radical actions. You’re probably aware that the title character doesn’t live to the end of the play; in some ways, this work could be entitled Marcus Brutus, but Caesar was certainly the more famous man.
The play opens in a stark, empty set, Roman with influences from Albert Speer, where there are some steps, columns, and lions toward the back of the stage. The RSC has gone full toga here; this is no modern dress production, transported to some setting where one needs to imagine how a modern Caesar would reflect the original. This is Rome, and the production embraces the antique. All the men wear identical togas; clean, crisp, white trimmed with scarlet.
(Photos: Helen Maybanks for the RSC.)
Brutus is a well-respected Roman, and Cassius, played by the excellent Martin Hutson, starts suggesting that Rome would be better off without Caesar, who has just returned from a war with Pompey. In a show of humility, the Roman people – offstage – have offered Caesar the crown of emperor, but he refuses three times, only to accept.
Brutus, admirably played by Alex Waldmann, warms to the idea, and before long launches the conspiracy. The comings and goings of the conspirators build the tension, and their plans takes hold.
Earlier in the play, a soothsayer had warned Caesar to “Beware the ides of March,” and just before Caesar was due to go to the Senate, his wife, having dreamt of his death, tries to keep him home. But Caesar heads out on that fateful day.
The famous murder scene is one of the tensest scenes I’ve seen at the RSC. The combination of set and lighting make it a harsh murder, and, while there’s not a lot of blood, there’s enough so the killers can wash their hands in it, and stain their togas.
After the intermission comes Mark Antony’s famous speech, which begins with “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” Standing on a small platform in the center of the stage, surrounded by a surprising number of Romans – most of the cast, plus what seems like a gaggle of extras – James Corrigan performs one of the best scenes I have ever seen at the RSC. He is impassioned and truculent, reminding that, “Brutus is an honorable man,” and he plays the crowd like a cheap fiddle.
The remainder of the play is less intense, as the men are seen at war, and Brutus and Cassius have a bit of a falling out. With the conspirators on one side, and Mark Antony and Octavius on the other, war is immanent, and the battle scenes are thrilling, the ending tragic, as several of the conspirators choose death in honor over death at the hands of their enemies.
The triumvirate of Brutus, Cassius, and Mark Antony – respectively played by Alex Waldmann, Martin Hutson, and James Corrigan – make up a stellar cast for this production. I felt that Caesar, played by Andrew Woodall, was a bit too much of a loudmouth, spitting as he spoke, and r-r-r-olling his Rs, which may have been a way of marking him as somehow different from the others. The majority of the cast is made up of RSC first-timers, who all acquit their roles with ease and grace.
It’s hard not to see this play and think of politics, either in the US or the UK, with Trump on one side, Brexit on the other. But that’s the beauty of Julius Caesar; it holds a message for all time, to be interpreted according to the current political climate. But Angus Jackson’s production, staying purely in its Roman guise, takes no sides, allowing spectators to make their own transpositions, if they wish.
This was a beautiful production, with creative lighting, and, while there was just the single set in the first half, the set morphed a bit in the second part giving the stage a very different tone. The two key scenes in the middle of the play are among the best theater I’ve seen at the RSC, and the overall production is powerful. I hope to see this play again several times during its run.
The only negative was one brief moment near the end of the play that was so shocking that much of the audience gasped in surprise. This is something that is not in Shakespeare’s text, and that I feel should not be done on stage, but I will say no more so as not to spoil anything.
Projections as part of a theatrical production are not new, but they seem to be coming of age. The Royal Shakespeare’s recent production of The Tempest used some interesting projections to highlight its stage set and characters, though the play would have been excellent without them, and not everyone in the theater could see them.
Another approach is that taken by 59 Productions in their adaption of Paul Auster’s novel City of Glass at HOME Manchester (and soon to be at the Lyric Hammersmith in London). Here, the projections are an integral part of the production, providing a multitude of sets in front of which the characters interact.
City of Glass is the first novel in Auster’s New York Trilogy. It’s a sort of metaphysical noir tale, where Daniel Quinn receives a phone call one evening, which is a wrong number. He’s intrigued by this, and when someone calls back and asks if this is the Paul Auster Detective Agency, he goes along. He gets drawn into an odd case where a strange man fears that his father is going to kill him.
(Photos: Jonathan Keenan)
(I wish the theater had some production photos that show the entire stage and the projections, because they really are clever; the photos above don’t really do justice to this unique element of the production. )
A voice over narrates the parts in between the dialog, giving the production the tone of a film noir, and the stage changes from scene to scene, through a clever use of projections. In the first scene, Quinn is in his two-room apartment, and this set serves for the entire production. Different elements are projected on the walls in different scenes, showing where the action takes place. There is also Peter Stillman’s apartment, a diner, Grand Central Station, the street in front of a hotel, and an alleyway, among others. At no time do the projections seem fake; they blend into the background. There are a couple of scenes where screens descend so projections can be made closer to the front of the stage, but the rest of the play is all performed in this simple set. All this is accompanied by a creative use of music to set moods and move the plot along.
Adapted from Auster’s novel, and from the graphic novel adaptation of it, this production highlights the visual elements of the story, but it’s not a story that adapts well to the stage. It’s full of meta-fictional references (to Paul Auster himself, who appears as a character, to Don Quixote and the book-within-a-book of that novel, and more), and it can be confusing to those who haven’t read the text. In addition, the denouement of the story, which works well on the page, fizzles a bit on stage.
Nevertheless, this is a thrilling production, brought to life by a small team of excellent actors (including two actors playing the role of Daniel Quinn). The technical element does stand out, but in service to the text, and the fast pace (1:45, with no intermission, that sped by) makes this a very enjoyable production. I can almost excuse the let-down of the ending having enjoyed the journey so much.
It’s interesting to go to the theater with no expectations. I knew that Snow in Midsummer was a Chinese play adapted from a classic story, but I knew nothing of the plot, and had no idea what the RSC was going to present. Productions at the RSC’s smaller Swan Theatre tend to be a bit out of the ordinary. Some are by Shakespeare’s contemporaries – Marlowe, Jonson, etc. – and others are contemporary. Some are highly dramatic and others are rousing comedies.
Snow in Midsummer is “the first production in our Chinese Translations Project, a cultural exchange bringing Chinese classics to a modern western audience.” The RSC has developed a partnership with China, working together on translating all of Shakespeare’s plays (not that they haven’t been translated into Mandarin Chinese before), and performing some of them in China. At the same time, the RSC will be presenting a number of Chinese works in the UK. This play was originally titled Dou E Yuan (???), or The Injustice to Dou E, and was written by Guan Hangqing during the Yuan dynasty (13th century CE); this modern version was adapted by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig.
Dou Yi was executed for a murder she did not commit, and vows that if she is innocent, a drought will hit her native town, and it will snow in midsummer. The play opens with her on stage – presumably before her execution – then some of the people in the town are seen discussing the drought. The plot slowly takes form, as we see a woman, Tianyun, who comes to the town to buy the local factories. She meets Handsome Zhang who runs the factories and wants to sell them to leave and travel the world with his lover, Rocket Wu. When Handsome proposes to Rocket, Tianyun’s daughter Fei Fei tries to stop them, because of the bad omen of proposing during Ghost Month.
(Photos by Ikin Yum for the RSC.)
Fei Fei has dreams of playing in the snow, and she wakes up with characters scratched on her arm: the name of Dou Yi. Tianyun starts asking questions, and finds that Dou Yi had murdered Zhang’s father, and was executed for this murder. Rocket later has chest pains when they are on the way to the factory, and it turns out that he had had a heart transplant. We later learn that the heart came not from a victim of a car accident, as Handsome had told Rocket, but from Dou Yi.
Okay, this is getting a bit complicated, and this is only the first half of the play. I won’t say any more about the plot – I wouldn’t want to spoil everything – but it turns out that there are connections between several of these characters that aren’t obvious at first.
The complicated plot drags a bit during the first half of the play, and, in the second half, a long flashback – which took me a while to see as a flashback – clears up some of the mystery. The true killer of Zhang’s father is revealed, as is Dou Yi’s relation to the other characters, and the end of the play turns out to be a bit Shakespearean.
I’m fairly familiar with classical Chinese literature, having studied a bit of Chinese, and none of the themes surprised me. I don’t, however, have enough knowledge of Chinese superstitions, which play a big role in the play (and which Tianyun mentions a number of times early on). So there’s a lot of Chinese culture that I didn’t pick up on in this production; I can imagine that those with no knowledge of Chinese literature would be even more at sea. In addition, the combination of old and new is at times jarring, but at times quite appropriate. For example, while some see the drought as caused by some sort of sprits, others talk of global warming.
At a brisk two hours – with an intermission – the play moves ahead fairly quickly, and most of the scenes are fairly short, helping to keep things going. Justin Audibert’s direction tends toward the flashy, with a couple of dance/march numbers, a lot of bright, flashing lights, and some fairly loud music at times. (And, as a sign warns at the entrance to the theater, gunshots, strong language, and distressing scenes.) The production is dragged down a bit by some acting that isn’t up to the RSC’s standards; some of the cast overact, and others just don’t have the chops. The main characters are all excellent, though Katie Leung’s Scottish accent is a bit jarring, and Colin Ryan, as Handsome Zhang, seemed as though he wants to soliloquize Hamlet at times.
Katie Leung is arguably the star of the play. Her scenes both as the living Dou Yi and her ghost hold the play together. The long scene when she is sentenced to death then executed has a bit too much Joan of Arc, and her speech before she was shot by firing squad could have been a bit less wordy; it was hard to follow, and said too much.
This was an entertaining play in spite of my criticisms, and it’s a shame to see theater-goers don’t really approve of the RSC’s diversification; the theater was only about 2/3 full – this is the smaller Swan theater, with 460 seats – and the RSC has been promoting this play with deeply discounted tickets in an attempt to fill the house. (Yet the audience was quite appreciative at the end of the performance.) It’s like the recent production of The Two Noble Kinsmen, which suffered the same fate, though the reviews for Snow in Midsummer are generally better. The RSC needs to get its core audience – which is mainly people in or near the Stratford area – to take more chances on unfamiliar plays. I don’t know how they can do this; perhaps a season ticket system, or some sort of discount on tickets to regular attendees…
I look forward to more Chinese plays at the RSC, though I hope this Chinese project doesn’t prevent expanding the Swan’s offerings in other directions.
The National Theatre in London first produced Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus in 1979. It went on to be a huge hit, playing in the West End and on Broadway, and being adapted for the screen by Milos Forman. The National Theatre has revived the play, and I attended it yesterday. This is a tough ticket to get, as the performances are all sold out. My partner and I bought a membership at the National Theatre to be get advance access to tickets, and were able to snag a pair in the fourth row when a number of dates were added early this year.
The National Theatre has made a bold choice by casting Lucian Msamati as Salieri. This black actor, who I saw as Iago in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2016 production of Othello – the first time the RSC had cast a black Iago – is an astounding actor. As Iago he was brilliant; as Salieri, he is breathtaking. His stage presence dominates this production, and his performance is powerful and subtle.
(Photos by Marc Bremmer for the National Theatre.)
It’s the twilight of Salieri’s life, and he reflects on the past, when he knew Mozart, and was partly responsible for his downfall. “Awestruck by his genius, court composer Antonio Salieri has the power to promote his talent or destroy it. Seized by obsessive jealousy he begins a war with Mozart, with music and, ultimately, with God.”
Salieri dominates the play, and Mozart is present as much in his mind as well as when he is actually on stage. Played by Adam Gillen, Mozart comes off as a spoiled child with Tourette’s, and I found it hard to suspend disbelief, at least until the end, shortly before his death. His over-the-top performance led one reviewer to suggest a resemblance with Harpo Marx, and I think he’s spot on. Gillen goes too far; he’s too crazy, too impulsive, too unbelievable.
But Msamati is powerful, and the rest of the cast fully in the play, making the overall ensemble excellent. I had trouble with the first half of the play, where the scenes seemed a bit disjointed, and where Mozart’s behavior was too off the wall. But the second part was much better, as it followed a more chronological order as Salieri’s plot to take down the better composer was set in action.
The Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre has a very large stage. It’s round, and it can turn (though it doesn’t in this production), and this production takes full advantage of the stage by enlisting 20 musicians from the Southbank Sinfonia, who perform music along with the play. From what I understand, this use of music is new; it was not in the original production, which was more of a play than a spectacle. Together with a chorus and some excellent soloists singing bits from Mozart’s operas, this production of Amadeus comes off as a lush combination of music and theater that is designed to please.
It’s hard to not like this production. For me, it’s just the Mozart character that keeps it from being a true classic, but the audience reaction was such – many people giving a standing ovation, something not common in the UK – that it’s clear most people just shrugged that off. This production has been so popular that the National Theatre is brining it back for more performances in 2018 (presumably with the same cast), and I could see this transferring to another theater and playing for many years. It has everything you want in the theater: a strong story, a fine cast, and the music and elaborate staging make it a spectacle to remember. Heck, I’d even consider seeing it again next year…
Note that Amadeus was broadcast to cinemas as part of the NT Live program, and there will be encore screenings. So if you can’t see it live, you can still see it in cinemas, in the UK and in other countries. Find out more here. Here’s a trailer for the cinema broadcast:
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s current production of The Two Noble Kinsmen hasn’t gotten much love. Reviews have been poor, and according to some who have seen the play, attendance hasn’t been brilliant. This late collaborative work by Shakespeare and John Fletcher is certainly not the brightest star in the firmament of theater, but it has a lot going for it.
I finally got to see the production last night. I had bought two sets of tickets when they went on sale – as I do for all the Shakespeare plays at the RSC – but relinquished mine the first time around, back in August, when my partner’s sister came to visit. My partner and her sister returned home that night with long faces, not having enjoyed the play at all. Add to that the poor reviews of the play, and I went to the theater last night with much apprehension.
The Two Noble Kinsmen is playing in the Swan Theatre, the smaller of the RSC’s two theaters, which is mostly used for plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, as well as for some more recent works. I’ve seen plays by Marlowe, Jonson, and similar authors of the period, as well as a contemporary adaptation of Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and others. When attending plays in the Swan, I’m often aware that the plays themselves may not be the best; I’m thinking of the older ones, not the modern works. Such is the case with The Two Noble Kinsmen. If the RSC had felt it was up to the standard of Shakespeare’s other works, they would have presented it in the main theater.
With all this out of the way, I have to say I very much enjoyed the performance. My mental bar for this production was set fairly low, and I was ready to disappointed.
There are lots of problems with the production, and with the text; it’s not the most interesting of Shakespeare’s plots, but you can ignore that if the production is good enough. To begin with, Blanche McIntyre’s choices for this production are sometimes confounding. The wardrobe in particular looks like they just fished out some old costumes at random and stitched them up to fit the actors. There was no coherence to them at all: some actors were in more-or-less modern dress, others had hats that looked like they came from Flash Gordon, and there was a fair amount of leather. The set was also problematic. There were low concrete walls on each side of the stage, and on much of the front of the stage, and there was a concrete covered staircase at the back, with some small concrete walls at its sides. The whole thing looked a bit Ballardian. One innovative element of the set was the grilles that descended to the edges of the stage to simulate the jail cell where Arcite and Palamon are held for a time.
(Photos: Donald Cooper for the RSC.)
After a confusing opening scene, where three queens descend to the stage on ropes to ask that their husbands’ deaths be avenged (I think; I really couldn’t understand much of what was said, nay, yelled, in that scene), we switch to a battle scene, then one where Arcite and Palamon are imprisoned. And here’s where it gets good. The chemistry between Jamie Wilkes and James Corrigan was wonderful. Both of these actors are familiar faces, having been in productions I’ve seen since living in the area. Wilkes was in Oppenheimer and The Shoemaker’s Holiday, and Corrigan appeared in The Merchant of Venice and Othello. Their on-again, off-again relationship is the centerpiece of the play. When they are imprisoned, they both spy Emilia (brilliantly played by Frances McNamee, who, like much of the cast, is also in The Rover at the Swan this year), and fall in love with her, and end up fighting for her love.
A sub-plot involves the jailer’s daughter played by Danusia Samal. She falls in love with Palamon, and, when he ignores her after she frees him from prison, she drifts into Ophelia-like madness. Samal’s performance is the other light of the evening, as she slowly changes from a prim young woman to a shell of herself, craving love, which she only finds at the end through some trickery.
The Morris dancing bit could go, as could the wacky costumes and attitudes of the actors, but if you ignore those parts, and just focus on the two love plots, it’s really a moving play. Much of the text is, well, Fletcher, but the moments that shine do contain some lines worthy of Shakespeare. At nearly 2:40, it’s a bit long, and it would have been beneficial to cut some fat (though I’m not familiar enough with the text to know if anything was cut). And the bit with the buzzsaw? If you’re not going to use it, don’t bring it on stage. That was just sophomoric.
In the end, this was an enjoyable play, with an opportunity to see a “rarely-performed” Shakespeare work (and it’s obvious why it’s not performed more often), with a very good cast. Alternating with The Rover (which I saw in the summer, but didn’t review), this cast is most likely enjoying themselves. It’s a shame that the production was hindered by such simple things as incoherent wardrobe and overall logic, but if you have a chance to see this before it ends in February, I’d go for it.
Oh, and The Rover? It’s not a great play, but it’s one of the most boisterous productions I’ve seen at the RSC. I don’t remember much about it, but I had good time.
Note: one possibility for the difference between my experience and my partner’s is that the play has evolved, and perhaps changed since the early days. We generally agree on the quality of the productions we see, and given all the negative reviews of this play, the only logical explanation is that changes were made after the early performances because of the many negative reviews.
Glenda Jackson’s performance as King Lear in London’s Old Vic Theatre’s production of the Shakespeare play is being adapted for BBC Radio 4.
The production forms part of the BBC’s Christmas radio output, which also includes a documentary about Tommy Steele and an adaptation of A Christmas Carol starring Mark Gatiss as Scrooge.
King Lear will be broadcast on Radio 4 on Boxing Day at 2.15pm. The stage version of the show was directed by Deborah Warner, but the radio adaptation will be helmed by Susan Roberts and Pauline Harris.
Jackson, whose performance in the production marked her first return to the stage in 25 years, said: “It will be very interesting to see how the play transfers from stage to microphone [and radio]. I look forward to it.”
Radio 4 controller Gwyneth Williams said the production would provide a front-row seat to “one of the unmissable theatrical hits of 2016”.
I wanted to go see this in London, but at £150 a ticket, I said, “Nope.” It’ll be nice to hear the audio recording. It would be nicer if it was filmed and broadcast to cinemas.
The Tempest has never been one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. I find its multiple plot threads confusing, and the long info-dump in the second scene, right after the wreck of the ship containing the King of Naples and Prospero’s brother, gets the play off to an odd start. There’s way too much exposition in the beginning of the play, with backstories of Ariel and Caliban, and it takes to long to get moving. Beyond that, the plot isn’t that interesting. There’s a pretend marriage (with the prospect of an actual marriage to come), a pair of brothers who find each other after a dozen years, and the “happy” ending of Prospero once again becoming the Duke of Milan.
Nevertheless, it’s a perennial crowd-pleaser, perhaps because, unlike the tragedies, it’s not a heavy play; kids can enjoy it, if the magic is foregrounded enough. In the current Royal Shakespeare Production, the magic is more than foregrounded; it’s the main selling point for the play. The RSC has worked with Intel and with Imaginarium, the company founded by Andy Serkis (Gollum, in the Lord of the Rings), to bring motion capture technology to many domains. (You can learn more about the technology used in this production here.)
But even without all this digital derring-do, this production would be notable, as it features Simon Russell Beale as Prospero, in his first performance at the RSC in more than twenty years.
(Photos by Topher McGrillis for The RSC.)
To begin, the photo above of Simon Russell Beale as Prospero and Mark Quartley as Ariel shows the intricate stage set, designed to look like the broken hull of Prospero’s ship, which crashed a dozen years earlier, stranding him on the island. In three and a half years seeing plays at the RSC, this is by far the most imposing set I’ve seen. Behind it is a large, curved screen, onto which images are projected, and above the stage is the Vortex, a spiral of mosquito netting that descends on the stage at times so images and Ariel’s avatar can be projected on it.
Above is the scene where Prospero is explaining how he released Ariel after the witch Sycorax had trapped him in a tree. We see the tree slowly imprison Ariel, then release him. As you can see in this photo, projections are not just on the Vortex, but also on the stage, the ship’s hull, and the rear screen. At a few moments in the play, these projects are almost overwhelming in their intricacy, and their beauty. The effects create an enveloping experience, if you’re sitting in the right location. (More on that below.)
The play is not all digital wizardry; in fact, it’s the acting that makes this an excellent production. Not just Beale, who is a force of nature as Prospero, but many of the supporting actors bring this production alive.
One of the sub-plots involves the people whose ship wrecked in the first scene. These kings and dukes, dressed and acting like they stepped out of a Gilbert & Sullivan musical, are probably the least interesting part of the play. Their role is simply to facilitate Prospero’s eventual return to his dukedom, and I found these sections to be a bit of a slog. In the very first scene, where they are all on stage swaying, pretending to be on the deck of their ship in the storm that Prospero conjured up, the noise of the storm was such that I heard only a few words of what they said, and in later scenes, they mostly seem to stand around jawing.
Another sub-plot follows Caliban with Stephano and Trinculo, two drunkards who escaped from the shipwreck, well laden with sack. Caliban takes Stephano for a god, and together they plot a coup against Prospero. The scenes with these characters are among the most enjoyable. Tony Jayawardena, with his Indian accent, and Simon Trinder, with his clown make-up and little tooting horn, provide some perfectly timed slapstick comedy, which delighted the many young people in the audience. (Last night’s production had several school groups in attendance.) At one point, he even hops into the audience to sit one one spectator’s lap. Shortly after the intermission, the person next to the unwitting cushion hadn’t finished their ice cream, so Trinculo takes it and starts eating it; this brought a great deal of laughter from the audience. Caliban, played by Joe Dixon in a suit that made him look like a true monster, had the perfect balance of naiveté and pathos for this role, and, while he doesn’t have many great lines, his one long speech is beautiful:
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
The other sub-plot is about Miranda and Ferdinand, one of the escapees of the shipwreck, who Miranda immediately falls in love with.
Is the third man that e’er I saw, the first
That e’er I sigh’d for…
As often in Shakespeare’s comedies, these two young lovers will eventually be united, but they face few obstacles to their love, and I was relatively unconvinced by Daniel Easton’s performance as Ferdinand. Jenny Rainsford as Miranda was fine, but I never felt any convincing emotion from her performance. At times she was a bit over the top, at times a bit withdrawn, but she, the one who is discovering a “brave new world that has such people in it” doesn’t seem that amazed by it all.
One of the oddities of this production is contrast between the sumptuous images of some scenes and the stark simplicity of others. In a way, these can be seen as magic versus reality, with the magic being excessive, and the reality being as stark as a Beckettian landscape. And perhaps that’s the point of the production. The best example of this is lovely wedding masque in Act 4, where three spirits, Iris, Ceres, and Juno, perform a song with bright colors projected on the stage and the rear screen, with dancing and happiness, when, suddenly, Prospero ceases their revel, and the stage becomes dark, colorless, lifeless. The sharp contrast between those two is almost breathtaking, and is a powerful moment of theater.
This production has an intermission after about an hour and a half; the second part is just under an hour. I felt that the first part dragged on a bit – it had the Pirates of Penzance and their rambling discussions – but the second part was a lot more vibrant. It featured the masque, which gives the play a joyous tone, even though it’s cut short, and Prospero is on stage much more in the later scenes. In the end, when Prospero speaks the epilogue, it all comes together. This is, indeed, Prospero’s play, and theater-goers fortunate to see this performance by Simon Russell Beale will not be disappointed.
I thought of writing two different reviews of this play, because, while I saw it last night from the third row in front of the stage, I also saw an early preview, from a seat on the side of the stage, near the back. From that vantage point, I saw pretty much none of the special effects. I could not see the projections on the Vortex, as they are mainly visible from the front, I couldn’t see the rear screen at all, because it’s far to the back of the stage, and I couldn’t even see all of the stage, because my view was blocked by one of the ribs of the ship’s hull. There’s a real problem with seating for this production, and many people I have discussed this with have been disappointed by how little they could see from their seats. And these tickets are not marked “Restricted view,” as is the case with certain seats in the theater that are adjacent to beams or in other locations.
As you can see in the first two photos above, the stage set is built sort of like a funnel. It comes out to the sides of the stage, and if you’re sitting on the side – the Royal Shakespeare Theatre has a thrust stage – you may not see many or most of the effects. I’m not sure where the lines of sight are sufficient, but if you’re in front of the stage, you’ll see everything; on the sides, it depends on how far toward the back of the stage you are. You’re better off sitting on stage left, because of the angle of the two parts of the ship’s hull used as the set allow you to see the rear screen more easily.
A number of people have also pointed out that sitting in the stalls means you cannot see the projections on the stage. I was in the third row, and I saw them fairly well, but it does seem like the ideal location to see this production is in the circle, the first level up, near the center. In fact, given the problems with sight-lines, the best way to see this play may be when it is broadcast to cinemas on January 11, or when it is released on DVD and Blu-Ray. It’s a shame to attend such a performance and not see everything, and this is the first time I’ve seen a production at the RSC when this is a problem. I’ve sat in similar locations at the side of the stage before, and never missed anything. It’s worth noting that the play is transferring to the Barbican in London, and that having a proscenium arch stage should eliminate many of the problems of lines of sight.
(For an interesting perspective on how seating can affect one’s impression of this production, see two reviews by The Bard of Tysoe: bad seat and good seat.
As for the electronic wizardry, it is spectacular at times – see the photos above – but it doesn’t seem essential. Mark Quarterly, playing Ariel, is sometimes on stage, but invisible to the characters (“Go make thyself like a nymph o’ the sea: be subject, To no sight but thine and mine, invisible”) When he performs the bits that are projected on the screens, the audience can still see him, and I think this is a mistake. His avatar’s movements lag behind his actual movements, and all this does is distract the audience from the avatar, which is what the characters see. I suspect this is done so it’s clear that the motion capture is live, not recorded, but it just confuses things. If an audience can suspend disbelief at the theater, they don’t need to have visual proof of how the digital magic is made. In addition, there are a few bits where a smaller Vortex moves across the stage with the avatar project on it, and the projections didn’t quite follow the column of mosquito netting. If this can’t be perfect, it’s not worth doing.
I started this review saying that The Tempest is not one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. This production tries to be many things, and, in the end, is satisfying, even jubilant at times. But it’s not the gimmickry that saves it, it’s Simon Russell Beale’s Prospero that makes this worth seeing. I look forward to seeing it again in January, in good seats. In fact, my seat is the exact one where Trinculo hopped into the audience, so at least I’ll be prepared…
To sum up: see this production for Simon Russell Beale, see it for the novelty of the effects, but see it from the right place in the theater, if you can get a ticket. (The Stratford run seems to be almost entirely sold out.)
One final note. The British people are parsimonious about standing ovations, but Mr. Beale received one from many audience members last night. This is the first time I’ve seen this at the RSC.