NT workshops use 'The Tempest' as a launch for inspiration, reports Reva Klein. Prospero has never appeared more majestic, more mesmerising, more human. Draped in long robes, the character's power and dignity is immense.
But this is no ordinary Prospero, played by an elder statesman of the stage. This Prospero is a 30-something woman, full of passion. And this is no ordinary Tempest, either. This is the National Theatre's current Shakespeare touring production and, in adaptor and director Brigid Larmour's words, "a short play based on The Tempest, substantially cut down - with a number of secondary characters like Gonzalo and Trinculo and the spirits cut out altogether - and reworked to focus on the mother-daughter relationship of Prospero and Miranda".
The risks involved in such radical tampering pay off beautifully, offering a story that will have personal, emotional resonances for the young audiences for which it was designed. Larmour's adaptation avoids becoming a gimmicky tale of a single mum bringing up her daughter in straitened circumstances. It is, instead, a story of a mother's fear of rejection and loneliness, her reactions to daughter Miranda's adolescent sexual awakening. That this comes at a time when her dominion over Caliban and Ariel are also being challenged makes Prospero's situation all the more poignant.
Played by Virginia Radcliffe in a complex, larger than life performance, Prospero is no detached string-puller, but an emotional and intellectual force to be reckoned with. School audiences have a workshop with the company to prepare for the performance. After ice-breakers and some hilarity-making warm-ups, they get down to the matter at hand which, as workshop co-ordinator and actor Richard Hahlo explains, is to "demystify the play, break down the fusty, dusty image of Shakespeare and have a good time".
When schools book the production, they are asked by the NT's education department to ensure pupils have looked at the script, at the very least, before the visit. This helps ease them into the text. Each actor talks about her or his character in the play, in the context of the story. One butts in at the expense of the other, to take issue with an interpretation or just to argue for the sake of it. Despite the metereological conditions in the opening of the play, there is no heavy weather in the young company's examination of the text. Richard Hahlo says: "We're not after getting a definitive understanding of the play. We are more concerned with them being engaged and inspired by it. "
The company achieves this by getting under the skin of the play, looking at motivations and characterisations by putting the central themes into modern sketch form first. The actors enact a scene in which a teenage son wants to go to a pop concert after helping his mum with the shopping, but she insists he stays to help in the house. The scene then moves to a parallel one in the play, this time between Ariel and Prospero, who demands "more toil" from him. When it comes to understanding the character of Caliban, students are asked to assume the form and behaviour of "monster" themselves, moving around the room assuming appropriate shapes and noises. When Caliban is presented to them (performed by Jonathan Jaynes as the alternately heart-rending and uproarious outcast), he seems to encapsulate all the interpretations.
Interactivity plays a large part in the programme. There are no spectators during the performance: the rehearsed "audience" moves from high tide to low tide positions throughout, aligning themselves with the beautifully designed rocks (by Nettie Edwards) to give a sense of the island's changing nature - and its strangeness. This is indeed the stuff that dreams are made on.
The National's production team, in addition to the all day sessions, also offers inset workshops to teachers. For more information about the tour of The Tempest, ring the education department on 071 928 5214. A one-day conference, Teaching Shakespeare: Performance and Pedagogy, takes place at the National Theatre on March 18. Organised by the Roehampton Institute, in association with the National Theatre and Routledge, publishers of the Arden Shakespeare series, the day features workshops, discussion groups, lectures and a performance of the touring Tempest. Tickets Pounds 20.