January 23, 2003: Shakespeare, The Tempest

Evening. The Old Vic. Sheffield Theatre Crucible production, directed by Michael Grandage. Derek Jacobi as Prospero

As it happens I have seen two plays today directed by Michael Grandage. Grandage is now the artistic director of the Donmar and associate director of the Sheffield theatre with primary artistic responsibility for the Crucible. (I take it there is more than one theatre in the Sheffield complex.)

This is a brilliant production of a brilliant play, one of Shakespeare’s very best. Grandage and the designer, Christopher Oram, have hit on the wonderful idea of constructing a ruined eighteenth-century theatre on this desert island where Prospero and his daughter Miranda have been stranded. And the Old Vic is possibly the best theatre in London where this idea might be realized. The theatre has a long history, from its earliest days as the transpontine Royal Coburg to the rehab of the theatre under the ownership of Ed Mirvish. (Before he bought it, in the 1980s, I saw the original production here of Olivier’s Othello, with Maggie Smith as Desdemona and Frank Finlay as Iago — memorialized in the film directed by Stuart Burge.)

It is a pleasure to stand at the edge of the stage and, turning one’s back to it, look up at the three levels of audience surround, tastefully decorated, with gold leaf a prominent but not overwhelming feature, as the gold leaf at the Haymarket now is. The proscenium arch, brought no doubt from Sheffield, well upstage, is somehow reminiscent, architecturally and in decor, of the Old Vic proscenium arch, beyond which the rough rude planks, moderately raked up to that ruined proscenium, extend well out into the auditorium (my seat, in Row H, was the second row back, an indication of how far this forestage, reminiscent of the Drury Lane forestage in the age of Colley Cibber, extends into the auditorium). And even the ruined proscenium as its own, somewhat diminutive forestage, was collapsed into a kind of V-shaped depression. And there are doors, or rather open, undecorated doorways, in the ruined proscenium arch, the left one used for entrance and egress, the right one piled knee-high with old books, evidently those books given to Prospero by Gonzalo and “prized above his dukedom.” A magical effect altogether, speaking eloquently of the meta-subject of the play, the farewell to the theatre implicit in Prospero’s farewell to his magic. This ruined stage even encompassed Caliban’s cave, which is hollowed out of the base of the stage front on the right.

The play begins suddenly, while the house lights are still on, with a near-deafening clap of thunder and courses of lightning, as the house lights go suddenly dark and the tempest engulfs the ship and the mariners. As the storm subsides, the forestage goes dark, and the upstage, where we have seen billowing curtains as the storm raged, is lighted from behind, revealing Prospero, in his magic garment and wielding his magic staff, appearing through the now trans­parent scrim. With a great wave of his wand, the entire curtain is pulled down and drawn into a central cavity in the “V” of the upper stage, until it is fully gone. The cavity turns out to be Prospero’s book, whose cover he flips closed with the tip of his staff. He then picks up the closed book, carries it upstage right, and lays it on top of the stack of his other books. The effect is quite magical. We cannot discern where that gigantic scrim has gone — presumably into the cellar somehow, but it leaves not a rack behind.

So begins a truly magical production of this play, remarkable for its fresh­ness, unpretentiousness, and clarity as well as for its great theatrical effective­ness. Daniel Evans, the Ariel, Louis Hilyer, the Caliban, Claire Price, the Miranda, are standouts among the uniformly strong cast, though Jacobi’s Prospero is formidably yet also unpretentiously good. The key to doing a play with a hallowed reputation like this is to jettison the reputation and simply go looking in the script for the values that lie there, ready for the taking. Grandage has done just that, and has cut the text judiciously to get down to its visceral core. It plays an even two hours, plus a single fifteen-minute intermission. There is a nice use of various trap doors, a double door down center and single doors right and left. The double door and the others are all used for hatches in the first sequence of the storm; the double doors are later used alone to present the banquet of delect­able fruit of which the royal survivors of the shipwreck are suddenly deprived by a vindictive Ariel.

Ariel himself is a fine spirit, winged when it suits his commission, and poss­es­sed of an unusually sweet, near-counter-tenor voice that does full justice to the songs Shakespeare wrote for the part. There is no credit in the program for musical composition, but I have not heard these songs — the music of them — before, nor the incidental music played at various points, atmospheric yet unob­trusive. Ariel is accompanied on his execution of Prospero’s projects by two lesser spirits, added to Shakespeare’s dramatis personae here. I was at first worried that they would prove as distractive as they were extraneous to the text, but in fact they were used with great discretion to effect Ariel’s orders and added an element of spectacle, welcome since some of the spectacular effects Shake­speare ordered up were cut in the interests of time and the more swift conduct of the dramatic action.

The Caliban, Louis Hilyer, was a hugely energetic, all too human “monster” covered over with dirt, scabs, and the detritus of cave dwelling, dressed in rags and sporting a monstrous patchwork cape with holes in it, one of which he uses to poke his head out of when he is affrighted by Stefano and Trinculo. The latter two are very well differentiated, though uniformly drunk for much of the play. Trinculo, a chef of sorts, carries a double soup dipper on a single stem and a hammer that serves as a slapstick with which he hits Caliban. The Caliban expends tremendous energy over the course of the action. He pulls all eyes toward him whenever he is on stage, and yet never seems to “steal” from the scene itself.

Claire Price is not your usual Miranda, skinny and ethereal. For all her long island sojourn, she is as well fed as a London-born-and-bred, freedom-of-the-city young woman, for all the rags-made-into-a-dress costume she wears throughout the play, bare-shouldered and strapless and wrapped tightly around her trunk. (Prospero’s magic coat is made out of the same parti-colored rags.) She has long, blonde hair, a beautiful, naïve face, and a grace that is as unassuming as it is charming. She makes Ferdinand’s declarations of love completely plausible. Her lack of experience is well emphasized throughout, and when more human beings show up, at the end of the play, than she has ever seen before and she blurts out her famous line, “Oh, brave new world, that hath such people in it,” Prospero’s sotto voce remark, “new to thee,” is delivered by Jacobi in a soft, understanding tone instead of the cynical, curmudgeonly accent that other Prosperos might find more in character.

Jacobi is in fact wonderful in this role. He brings great energy to it and projects his voice fully and spiritedly. There is no “concept” in operation here. It is a very straightforward reading of the character, old and irritable, impatient, and sorely tried as the text requires him to be, but at the same time humane and reasonable. When he declares at the crisis of the play that “the better action is in virtue than in vengeance,” we hear the ring of truth in it. Jacobi dominates the play as Prospero inevitably dominates the script; but the ensemble work here is as good as I’ve seen in some time, and Jacobi is part of the ensemble, not ranged in contrast to it.

I liked this production extremely well. If I never see another production of the play in my life, I’ll be happy to carry images of this one as a relic of the efforts of actors whose “purpose,” as Prospero puts it in the epilogue, is simply “pleasure.”


(A note about the faux proscenium upstage in the Michael Grandage Tempest: Grandage told my colleague Russell Jackson (recently appointed director of the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford), who wrote a program note for the play, that he — Grandage — got the idea for that proscenium from seeing something quite similar in the Baz Luhrman film of Romeo and Juliet.)



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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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