Jessica Harris sees another take on a familiar story.
With our planet in the grip of climate chaos, an island is a great lens through which to view the state of things. And in this thought-provoking production of The Tempest, the RSC does not shy away from using its island setting to symbolise the crisis we face because of our dependency on fossil fuels. The issue plays out in the production’s themes, and also in its set, props and costuming.
The theme of power, and the inner struggle to relinquish it, carries an environmental focus from start to end. The opening storm which wrecks the ship carrying Prospero’s adversaries and which lands them on the island is, of course, the result of her magical powers. But the final scene in which Prospero drowns her book of magic and, in doing so, gives up her control over events on the island is played in a way which reminds us of our limited power over the natural environment.
The treatment of the relationship between Miranda and Ferdinand also echoes the issue of the changing climate. As Ferdinand, starry-eyed in his love for Miranda, is tasked by Prospero to carry wood, we see him clearing the island of plastic waste washed onto the shores. Their courtship develops as they pick out tunes together on a reclaimed piano and play chess using found objects.
The set is emblematic of decay and renewal. When the play opens, the stage is dominated by the rotting hull of a ship, lighting is subdued and the atmosphere sombre. Gradually, as those who usurped Prospero’s power before casting her adrift with her daughter Miranda are held accountable, it is replaced by luscious woodland.
The costumes of Ariel and the other spirits are made from flimsy discarded plastic. As the spirits melt away into the greenery, the gaudy plastic is removed in homage to the natural environment. The spirits who perform a masque to celebrate the engagement of Miranda and Ferdinand give them a green shoot, underpinning the theme of renewal.
For all its sombre tones, there is compassion and poetry in this production. Opening scenes are dominated by women. Alex Kingston’s characterisation of Prospero is, for the most part, empathetic towards the character. Able to display a huge emotional range, from wrath to gentleness, with many shades between, she holds the stage. Jessica Rhodes as Miranda has a youthful innocence about her which serves the role well. Heledd Gwynn as Ariel displays an exuberance of spirit one minute and a deep bond with her captor, Prospero, the next.
Caliban, played by Tommy Sim’aan, is portrayed with sensitivity: ultimately human, with a feel for the natural beauty of the island, his monstrous traits are a consequence of his experience of captivity and abuse.
There is also levity and, of course, there is magic too. Cath Whitefield as Trinculo and Simon Startin as Stephano make a strong comedic duo, their power-hungry antics parodying those of the courtiers, Antonio and Sebastian. The banqueting scene, conjured up by Prospero for the King of Naples and courtiers is brilliantly staged: Ariel and four spirits appear as a harpy, their single costume the colour of a deep green sea and the shape of seaweed. The play finishes with a final touch of genius: Ariel, now freed from servitude, symbolises hope as she ascends to the skies singing as she rises – and her song is in Welsh.
In a generally strong cast, some performances didn’t quite come up to scratch. And, although it improved, audibility of speech was an issue at the start of the play. But these were minor points, and strong direction gave a coherence to the whole with a clear focus on some major issues for today.
The Tempest was directed by Elizabeth Freestone, set design was by Tom Piper and costume design by Tom Piper and Natasha Ward.
It is on at the RSC, Stratford, until 4th March. For further information: rsc.org.uk.
Photos – Ikin Yum © RSC.