Review by Raphael Kohn
2023 has well and truly begun, and it sometimes feels like everyone’s kind of put the whole the-oceans-are-full-of-trash-and-we’re-all-going-to-die issue to one side. Well, apart from David Attenborough, Greta Thunberg, and the RSC. After all, a 400-year-old play about a wizard Duke with a magic staff living on an island with fairy slaves and a single daughter who he marries off to some people he shipwrecks onto the island in revenge for them taking her Dukedom sounds like the perfect source material for a production highlighting the climate crisis, right? According to the RSC, it most certainly is. But would this much-anticipated production be a groundbreaking revelation, or would the hype be more of a storm in a teacup?
The Tempest follows Prospero, the ex-Duke of Milan (Alex Kingston) and her daughter Miranda (Jessica Rhodes), who are isolated together on a Mediterranean island. Usurped by her brother and full of bitterness, she conjures a storm as her brother Antonio (Jamie Ballard), among with Alonso, the king of Naples (Peter de Jersey) and their staff, cross the sea from Tunis. Now shipwrecked on the island, Prospero works with magical spirits and monsters to reclaim her rightful place as Duke of Milan and make past wrongs right.
This rather fantastical story is wrapped in a production inspired by the climate crisis, directed by climate activist Elizabeth Freestone. It’s certainly quite significant that the RSC, previously criticised for their association with oil company BP, is now focussing on greener theatre, making new efforts to reuse and recycle materials used in other shows to prevent waste by following recommendations from Paddy Dillon’s ‘Green Book’. To that end, the costumes, set and props all resemble (or indeed are) items found washed up on beaches or in a skip. It’s quite the turnaround for the RSC and undoubtedly a welcome advancement for one of the UK’s leading producing theatres.
Framed by a derelict, portrait frame-like collapsed proscenium arch, Tom Piper’s set is quite simply a masterpiece. With grass growing through the floor tiles, vast chunks of the hull of a ship reaching out from the back of the huge thrust stage, which give the actors height over each other and the most spectacular reveal behind a curtain (which I’ll leave as a surprise for you to see for yourself), we are once again treated to a truly gorgeous set at the RSC.
This production of The Tempest centres Alex Kingston in its advertising, and it’s clear why. Kingston dances a verbal ballet with Shakespeare’s poetic lines, with a performance that fills the cavernous Royal Shakespeare Theatre with her presence. She encapsulates the very essence of Prospero and brings such talent to the stage that it’s difficult not to be stunned in awe. It’s a shame, therefore, that without her, the production slightly loses focus. At times, I felt as if I was waiting for her to return to the stage to propel the show forwards again.
The part of Ariel, played by Heledd Gwynn, is one any performer is lucky to have the opportunity to play. Gwynn certainly does not disappoint, with an energy that lights the room in her more jovial moments and with a darkness that chills to the core in one scene where, cloaked in a raven-esque costume, she terrifies and thrills in equal measure in a tidal wave of supernatural chaos. Peter de Jersey’s Alonso brims with intensity, and the whole supporting cast is a tight, balanced ensemble that does Shakespeare’s work justice without any performer stealing any other’s thunder.
Elizabeth Freestone had a fantastic idea in mind when conceptualising this production. What could have been a cheap gimmick idea to ‘revitalise’ this work turns out to be a rather excellent success, even though at times the energy of the show began to dip. This was a slight shame, as the concept itself was incredibly strong. Still, the show truly redeemed itself in the second act, which held its energy the whole way through, exciting and thrilling in equal measure. The finale, with its surprisingly minimalist, restrained approach, had my jaw lying closer to the floor than to my palate as the show reached its stunning conclusion.
With incidental music and sound design by Adrienne Quartley, The Tempest features a live orchestra of eight, who accompany key moments with some truly fantastic music. With a Stravinskyesque opening to accompany the shipwreck scene to some more delicate, almost folky soundscapes to complement the gentler moments, this production is significantly elevated by the careful and complex thought put into the audio aspects of this show. The lighting, designed by Johanna Town, is spectacular. A huge lighting rig hangs at the back of the stage, blending into the derelict set and aimed at the audience, which occasionally blasts the audience with flashes of lightning to heighten the intensity of some moments while also sensitively illuminating the slower scenes with warmth and care.
The RSC really has done it again with a tour-de-force performance from Alex Kingston and a production that shakes you to the core like a magnitude-8 earthquake. See it while you can, before it sails away in a month.
The Tempest plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 4th March. Tickets from https://www.rsc.org.uk/
Photos by Ikin Yum