Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 6thFebruary 2023
There is a welcome drive in contemporary theatre for sustainability and being green. The RSC is at the forefront: they’ve been recycling the same 37 plays for decades! Seriously, anything that reduces or offsets an organisation’s carbon footprint can only be for the good, can’t it? Can this example of sustainable theatre sustain my interest?
People who are shipwrecked on desert islands know all about repurposing and upcycling in order to provide shelter for themselves, and so it is no surprise to see that Tom Piper’s set follows suit. What does surprise me is that after many years of being marooned, Prospero’s place isn’t a little bit tidier? Perhaps she just likes a junkyard aesthetic. I say ‘she’ because this production boasts a female Prospero, in the form of Alex Kingston; the parental qualities of the character as good a fit for a mother as the more-traditional father. What jars at first is the use of ‘male’ forms of address. This Prospero is still a Prince and a Duke and a master – which shows how firmly rooted gender is in our use of language.
In the central role, Kingston storms it, as her plots involve everyone else on her island. There is power and tenderness in her portrayal, her powers of sorcery (which would have got any woman burned at the stake back in the day) as convincing as her maternal affections. She is supported by Jessica Rhodes’s lively Miranda and Heledd Gwynn’s enthusiastic Ariel.
Director Elizabeth Freestone highlights the comedic elements of the script and utilises the physicality of the cast to create the effects of the magic. This also adds comedy (Joseph Payne’s Ferdinand, rolling around, for example) and also an atmosphere where potentially anything could happen. A particularly effective moment is the arrival of Ariel and the Harpies in front of a giant gilt-framed mirror. At other points, the impact is not as well focussed, making for a patchy overall impression.
Ishia Bennison brings warmth and humour as the garrulous, cross-gendered Gonzalo, while Peter De Jersey adds heartfelt grief as the King of Naples sorrows for his lost son. Both, separately and as part of the ensemble, are adept at the physical aspects of the performance: the opening shipwreck is stylishly and effectively depicted.
Tommy Sim’aan’s Caliban is all human and no creature, which, I suppose, highlights the racism and colonialism that have reduced him to a slave on his native island. I just prefer more of a touch of the ‘other’ to the character. Simon Startin’s Stephano and Cath Whitefield’s Trinculo make an enjoyably drunken double act, but it is Kingston’s Prospero that dominates the action and our engagement. Her delivery of ‘Our revels now are ended…’ is powerfully emotive and her heartbreak at releasing Ariel is quietly devastating. There is never any sense that Prospero and Miranda might be in jeopardy; Kingston is in control of everything.
Much value is added to the production by the original music and sound design, courtesy of Adrienne Quartly, and there is a lot to enjoy in this busy production. On reflection though, I would ditch the mirror, and keep the stage almost if not entirely bare. The physicality of the cast is more than enough to convey what needs to be conveyed. Recycled sets don’t have to be rubbish.
☆ ☆ ☆ and a half!
Staff meeting: Alex Kingston as Prospero (Photo: Ikin Yum)