Reviewed by Nicole Thomas (Cardiff University)
Seven men in white cotton shirts and brown breeches stand in front of a wooden stage in the centre of Cardiff Castle. One holds an accordion and begins to play, accompanying them through a series of sea shanties. The music ends mid-verse, when the company abruptly ascends the stage, throwing ropes from the balcony and shouting for the ‘Boatswain!’ The sun is still shining down on the audience, but on-stage The Tempest has begun.
The Lord Chamberlain’s Men brought their boisterous production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest to Cardiff Castle on July 1st and 2nd. All but three members of the seven-man company were double-cast: a practical decision which had interesting dramatic repercussions. Of the eleven titled characters (the roles of Adrian and Francisco were eliminated and their lines dispersed), only Prospero (Matt Bannister), Caliban (Kristian Phillips) and Ariel (Craig Gordon) did not have to face multiple hurried costume changes in the small marquis backstage. Those costume changes meant William Vasey, who played a smirking Antonio in plush red velvet suit, had to forgo a wig when playing the wide-eyed, tip-toeing Miranda. Her first appearance—in blue dress and headband—evoked laughter from the crowd, a response which set the tone for the audience’s reaction to the entire play.
When Miranda first catches sight of Ferdinand, her response to ‘the third man that e’er I saw’ cues more audience laughter. Vasey plays her so daintily, with hands constantly clasped, that the audience takes nothing she says seriously. This is most emphasized by her interactions with Caliban. Phillips, wearing the torn and muddied version of Ariel’s pristine white doublet and hose, elicits more audience laughter with his desire to people ‘This isle with Caliban’s.’ His hunch-backed gate, staring eyes and slow speech incite an indulgent sympathy in the audience. Phillips plays him as if he was indeed a ‘foot-licker’: perhaps a bit naughty for trying to rape Miranda and murder Prospero, but without any violent rage seething underneath.
The mirroring of his and Ariel’s costumes provides a link between these two magical beings: Ariel is the good child to Caliban’s bad seed. Gordon’s training at the Dance School of Scotland is evident in his physicality on-stage: he stands with arms suspended, slightly swaying as if susceptible to the slightest breeze. Gordon prances, lisps, and pulls a multitude of faces at the audience, who enjoys every antic. He plays the accordion to accompany his own strong singing voice when toying with the mortals on the island.
The production’s approach to the magic in The Tempest is its strongest asset. The actor–led by Ariel’s hypnotic tunes and Prospero’s large wooden staff–move through a simple, tight choreography. When Alonso, Gonzalo, Sebastian and Antonio enter Prospero’s charmed circle at the end of the second act, they stagger slowly in with faces distorted in pain and freeze until Prospero tells the audience: ‘The charm dissolves apace’. The choreographer has paid careful attention to the script; each physical response to the magic is initiated by a cue in the dialogue, with gestures large enough to carry across the field. The balcony represents the seat of the play’s magic: only Prospero and Ariel use it, and then only when they are instigating or observing the effects of their spells.
With such an emphasis placed on magic and music, the political dimensions of the plot are somewhat subdued. Yet the choices made when double-casting add an intriguing psychological dimension to the play. The King becomes his own jester (Paul Hassall). The sober councilor, who envisages creating a utopia on the island, transforms into the drunken butler who would be king (William Reay). Innocent Miranda and noble Ferdinand (Shaun McKee) double as their own scheming uncles. Of these four actors, Hassall and Reay choose to maintain a continuity of character without sacrificing performance. Hasall’s Alonso and Trinculo are both fretful characters, while Reay’s Gonzalo and Stephano share a puffed-chest pomposity. Both actors use voice and mannerisms to differentiate their characters. Conversely, Vasey and McKee radically transform, in every respect, from virgin lovers to duplicitous royals. Their earnest, timid courtship stands in stark contrast to their verbal jousting with Gonzalo in the first act.
These vivid performances drive an energetic production. Thus, Bannister’s un-aged Prospero runs the risk of being overshadowed by his more dynamic fellows. Bannister narrowly avoids this by maintaining his energy level through each monologue and using Prospero’s moments of anger to take advantage of his height and vocal power. His epilogue is delivered with quiet grace.
The Lord Chamberlain’s Men débuted this production of The Tempest on May 29th. On July 2nd they were as fresh as if it were opening night. In emphasizing the quick wit, physical humour and supernatural characters of one of Shakespeare’s latest plays, they lost its darker shadings. Prospero’s elegiac figure, which anchors the plot, is buffeted by the strong winds of some excellent character actors. They made a choice. By the time the sun went down, they had the audience cheering their approval. Prospero was indeed set free.