I know a lot of you are probably sick and tired of the Olympics already but bear with me, because only the first part of this post will touch on them. By sheer coincidence I had tickets last Saturday to see this season’s RSC production of The Tempest, the very day after Sir Kenneth Branagh began the opening ceremony of the London Olympics with Caliban’s wonderful lines.
Be not afraid, the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twanging instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices,
That if I then had waked after long sleep,
Would make me sleep again; and then in dreaming
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me: when I wak’d I cried to dream again.
I have to say that knowing the play as I do, the idea of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and in this instance a particularly smug looking Brunel, spouting these lines at the top of Glastonbury Tor didn’t exactly seem appropriate, but I’m pleased Shakespeare got a look in somewhere. I was glad, then, to have the chance to almost immediately hear them in context, spoken by the remarkable Palestinian actor, Amer Hlehel , who is a member of the Company this year staging three plays concerned with the aftermath of shipwreck, The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night and The Tempest.
The notion of shipwreck, both real and emotional, is one that haunted Shakespeare throughout his career. The Comedy of Errors is one of his earliest plays. The actual date is disputed but it has to have been written by 1594. Twelfth Night came at the height of his fame, not long after the move to The Globe. And, The Tempest was his last solo text. I’ve come at this season’s productions backwards, so I don’t know if there is any sense of that progression but certainly the three shows are linked through a shared set that has the feeling of a construction battered by the winds and waves.
When it first opened this production of The Tempest got very mixed reviews and people whose opinions I trust were very unsure of its merits. Talking with members of the company on Saturday morning it became clear that of the three plays this was the one that took longest to settle, which perhaps explains why seeing it a couple of months into its run, I thought it was very interesting indeed.
It’s a modern dress production in that sort of fairytale modern dress way that is very popular at the moment and the links that my mind kept making were with last season’s magnificent revival by the same director, David Farr, of Harold Pinter’s play, The Homecoming. There you have the character of Lenny who has controlled and manipulated all those around him for so long that he thinks it is his right to do so. Then along comes his sister-in-law, Ruth, whom he assumes he will also twist around his finger, only then to find that his control has been ripped from him and he is left at her mercy. The echoes were probably stronger in my mind because Jonathan Slinger, who played Lenny, also plays Prospero.
Any Prospero has to be concerned with control. Here we have a Prospero who has suffered because he has neglected his duty and someone else has taken control from him. Like any one in that position might he has fallen to the temptation to get his own back by imposing tight control over those who are less able and less ruthless (no pun intended) than he. He is the archetypal petty tyrant. But mixed with that was fear. This Prospero knew only too well what it was like to be stripped of power and was terrified of finding himself in that position again. On the island he has control; leaving it will he have the strength to reclaim what he carelessly lost before?
More than any other Prospero I’ve seen, Slinger played the epilogue in character.
Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
And, instead of offering those last two lines in a ringing tone that invited the audience to applaud, he spoke them without any sense that they were the end of the speech so that the audience faltered for a moment before granting him his freedom – a moment long enough for a look to flicker across his face suggesting that he truly was looking into the jaws of despair.
I will remember that final horror in Slinger’s face for a long time. If you have the opportunity to see this production I would ignore the early reviews and take it.