SHAKESPEARE’s last play, and his most magical, The Tempest is mysterious, moving, at times outrageously funny and occasionally alarming. There is nothing realistic about it – in the sense of theatrical realism – yet it probes the human experience with forensic honesty.
There are things about the play that are uncomfortable for some modern audiences. Caliban is a particularly difficult character. There are overt suggestions of slavery in Prospero’s relationship with him, and his treatment by the drunken duo of Trinculo and Stephano offends our sensibilities as racist and discriminatory. Yet Caliban is no noble savage – he is a vengeful would-be rapist.
Deborah Warner, the new artistic director of Bath’s Ustinov Studio, does not shrink from the play’s challenges, but confronts them head on, with Edward Hogg’s muddy, muscular Caliban.
Nicholas Woodeson, with his wide vocal range, is a majestic Prospero, superficially capricious but never losing sight of his plan, to punish his usurping brother and the King of Naples and to find a husband worthy of his beautiful and intelligent daughter, Miranda.
Many critics and Shakespeare scholars comment on the dreamlike atmosphere of The Tempest. Warner, with designer Christof Hetzer, lighting designer Jean Kalman and sound designer and composer Mel Mercier, creates an island that floats in the imagination as much as it does in the raging ocean.
Ariel, possibly Shakespeare’s most charismatic and mysterious character, is here played by Dickie Beau, who is known as a remarkable lip sync artist – but that’s a bit like saying Leonardo da Vinci drew well. With an other-worldly voice that seems to surround him yet also come from within him, he mesmerises the audience as he does the baffled lordlings. His physical skills rival his vocal athletics – a truly remarkable performance.
The production is full of subtle nuances – Sebastian (Luke Mullins), the treacherous brother of the King of Naples (Derek Hutchinson) is played as a weak coward, but unlike Prospero’s brother Antonio (Finbar Lynch) he lacks the ruthless instinct to kill his grieving brother and seize the throne. William Chubb’s Gonzalo captures the essential goodness of the old courtier.
Bristol Old Vic Theatre School graduate Tanvi Virmani, in her professional debut, plays Miranda fearlessly, recognising her soul mate in Pierro Niel-Mee’s energetic Ferdinand.
Stephen Kennedy and Gary Sefton make the absolute most of their clown roles. Not everyone finds these drunken fools and their humiliating treatment of Caliban funny – but even a few minutes listening in to the bear-pit of the House of Commons will tell you that Shakespeare understands how badly men behave when they perceive no boundaries.
The Tempest, with its makeshift set and clever digital graphics, is a startling introduction to Warner’s tenure at the Ustinov. It’s a great start. The production runs to 6th August.
Photograph Hugo Glendinning