Island's treasure;Reviews;Set Plays

20th March 1998 at 00:00
THE TEMPEST. Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Stratford-upon-Avon

The opening of Adrian Noble's fine production is strikingly theatrical. The sounds of creaking ship's timbers and crashing waves fill the air. A tiny galleon tosses on a billowing blue ocean against a troubled sky.

The set is simple. A curving back wall, a semicircular front curtain, and within this circle, a roundel of yellow cobbles. The simplicity is tellingly symbolic. Noble presents a fairy tale staging of Shakespeare's last play which reaches a satisfying "they all lived happily ever after" conclusion in a golden flow of light.

This expressionistic production presents Prospero's spiritual journey from all-powerful revenger with magical powers, to weak, forgiving mortal. For much of the play, David Calder's Prospero is full of burning resentment. He recoils from Ariel's touch and seems troubled even as he arranges the marriage of his daughter.

His irritability contrasts strongly with the portrayal of Ariel and Caliban who clearly seek the warmth and affection their master is so loathe to give. Scott Handy plays a near-naked, statuesque Ariel, eager to execute Prospero's every command. There's no anger, only an evident craving for love.

Robert Glenister's Caliban, mud-caked and moving on all fours, is both the mirror-image and antithesis of Ariel. At the end, like a small vulnerable child, he reaches for Prospero's hand, evidently longing for grace. That he will achieve it is clear from Prospero's sea-change. His affections transform to tenderness, prompted by Ariel's compassion. At the moment his enemies lie within his grasp, Calder's irascible Prospero becomes benign, and he genially reconciles himself to every character on stage.

This intelligent production contains all kinds of opportunity for student response: theatrical, moral and social. The great set pieces are challenging starting points for students' own presentations. Noble's shipwreck splendidly realises the opening stage direction "A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning". It also shows how to ensure that the audience hears every word. Other climactic moments can fire students' own imaginative reconstructions. Ariel's harpy descends on huge scarlet wings, and Prospero echoes his condemnations. The banquet-offering shapes are headless and harmless, like mobile tea-bags. How might your students portray them?

A host of moral issues for student discussion centres on revenge and forgiveness, nature and nurture. Students may feel that Noble too heavily loads the dice in favour of mercy, by making the villains so obviously ineffectual. And the harmony of the ending, with happiness ahead for all, will prompt argument: is it a mere directional, liberal-humanist fiction? What is a just balance between punishment and pardon?

The production will certainly spark student exploration of social and political issues, most notably colonialism. Noble's island is timeless and placeless. His characters speak and enact the language of domination and submission, but the question of their modern relevance is left open. Caliban wears neck and leg fetters, but little sense of the play as a critique of colonialism comes through. But this is the strength of the production. Its open theatricality invites creative dissent from students as they suggest and enact their own alternative interpretations.

In repertoire. Tickets: 01789 295623

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