What a treat to be back in the Swan. I haven’t been inside my favourite Stratford theatre since The Penelopiad back in 2007, and it’s wonderful to see it looking (on the inside, at any rate) exactly as it did before the closure, albeit with more comfortable seats. The first full production in there will be Cardenio, but the space has been warming up with some smaller shows including this, a new collaboration between the RSC and the Little Angel Theatre on The Tempest.
This production had a much more substantial human element than the last Little Angel take on Shakespeare, the excellent Venus and Adonis. Here, all of the human characters were played by costumed humans (although Miranda did carry a small doll version of herself) in a relatively straight, though highly edited, version aimed at children. Against a backdrop of curved rocks (arranged as if the inverted skeleton of some enormous sea beast), the cast wore traditional period dress evoking received images of the characters: David Fielder’s Prospero wore flowing robes and a full beard; the courtiers rich, red robes and headwear; the clowns doublet and hose.
The text was heavily cut for its young audience, with sections of new verse and songs added to explicate plot elements more clearly. This had the additional effect of shifting the emphasis of the play towards simpler and more conservative elements, such as the Miranda/Ferdinand romance. In a lovely scene, the two carried logs jointly, danced and flirted innocently, while the rest of the cast sat at the back of the stage and sang a gently mocking love song (“Is it love?” “Could be” “Possibly” “Might well be” “It isn’t entirely unlikely” etc.). This sweet sequence exaggerated the centrality of the love plot in relation to the other subplots, which were both heavily cut, and provided the main source of investment. Fielder’s Prospero wept openly as he finally gifted Ferdinand his daughter.
The appeal towards traditional settings and conservative priorities is, unfortunately, endemic of children’s theatre. In striving for accessibility, inevitably and understandably, productions reach back towards received images of a play, banking on a universal base level of recognisability. While the appeal is obvious, making use of stock types and childrens’ burgeoning awareness, it can have the unfortunate consequence of retaining outmoded values. I’m thinking in particular of this production’s Caliban, a man-sized puppet voiced by Jonathan Dixon who was a cross between an ape and a turtle, and spoke slowly and simply. The image of Caliban as the mentally-deficient man-monkey throwback, in my view, hits too closely towards the old racial stereotyping that used to inform Calibans, and it was a disappointment to see this on the RSC stage. Ariel, meanwhile, was a green pixie, a couple of feet high, who was carried around the stage in the act of flight, aiming for the ephemerality and lightness of the spirit.
The puppet performers carried their characters about the stage, pushing the bodies forward to act the words which were spoken openly by the handler. This was especially effective in the case of Caliban, whose sheer size and physicality allowed him to interact fully with the other characters, particularly as he and Stephano sat down next to each other and Caliban put his arms conspiratorially around his new king. Caliban was primarily comic, with a puppyish eagerness to please and a habit of growling deeply when resentful. While he was prodigiously strong (repeatedly flattening Stephano with thumps to his back), this monster was ultimately fearful and pathetic, and easily cowed.
The remainder of the puppet content was used for magical spectacle, aside from the seagulls that gently flew round the stage at the play’s beginning and end. An unfurling cloth banner allowed for two instances of shadow play – one with wire models of Ferdinand and Miranda in place of the masque scene, and one to reveal them in silhouette playing chess in the cave. The former of these was particularly effective, beginning with Prospero opening a book with reflective pages, which he directed to throw patterns against the cloth behind which the silhouettes slowly appeared. Ferdinand and Miranda approached their doppelgangers in awe and slowly began performing the same dance, coming closer to kiss. Prospero’s interruption of this gentle sequence was especially jarring.
The puppets were also used horrifically. Three large covered platters were placed in corners of the stage for the “men of sin”, which they cautiously raised. From beneath emerged three monstrously coloured and huge fish, which writhed and threatened as Ariel’s voice boomed across the stage, in a genuinely scary sequence accompanied by thunder and lightning. Less scary, but amusingly effective, were the two dresses lowered from the ceiling for Trinculo and Stephano to marvel at. The two danced with their new “women” until the dresses took on lives of their own, hovering above Stephano and knocking him to his back in what he took to be a sexual game. Suddenly, the performers inverted the dresses, and the enormous heads of rabid dogs emerged, barking and snapping at the terrified clowns.
Brett Brown’s Stephano was the highlight among the performers, a heavy-drinking, swaggering figure who peed into buckets, vomitted into audience laps and wandered through the audience winking and snatching programmes. He was accompanied by the hard-working Ruth Calkin who took on the bulk of the singing as well as playing Trinculo and Gonzalo, and the joking relationship with the foolish Caliban acted to break up the more serious action. The lords were more conventional, acting largely to keep the plot ticking along but making little greater impact, even though Christopher Staines did some nice work as a smug Antonio.
It was the relationship between Prospero and Anneika Rose’s Miranda that was most effective. Rose played Miranda as a wide-eyed innocent, again in line with traditional readings, but treated her father with a mixture of reverence and hurt confusion. Fielder, meanwhile, played Prospero with surprising range, including an avuncular jocularity towards Ferdinand and tender affection for Ariel. which saw him jokingly shake his head at the question “Do you love me, master?” before smiling and replying “Dearly”. Yet there was an edge to the character too. The “We are such things as dreams are made on” speech was delivered in a tone of deep sarcasm and anger, to the confusion of his daughter and son-in-law; and at other times a bitterness emerged from the character. Upon breaking his staff across his knee, a visible weight was lifted from him, and he straightened up, smiling, before running in joy from the island. Ariel grew wings and began flying among the seagulls, while the abashed Caliban returned to the stage and grunted in pleasure as one of the gulls nestled on his head. The lights faded on a simple, conventional and lovely version of the play that showcased the beautiful art of the Little Angel Theatre. It may have been behind its time as a reading, but played to purpose effectively.