Prospero failed to show up at the Paralympic Closing Ceremony. It has to be said that went off very well without him, though his absence was a surprise – particularly as he and Miranda had featured so centrally at the Opening. On that occasion their parts were taken by Sir Ian McKellen and Nicola Miles-Wildin, though with few direct lines from The Tempest. Even so, the fact they were there along with the Big Bang, Sir Stephen Hawking, Sir Isaac Newton, a flock of flying books, giant umbrellas and massive pyrotechnics all indicate how important Shakespeare remains to our culture and sense of self as a nation.
It also suggests how much loved is The Tempest, in some ways his most perfect play. It is amongst my favourites, and in each of the last five decades I have watched at least one production. The first was by an amateur company in London in the late 1970s. It was a disaster tinged with tragedy and farce and huge amounts of unintended comedy. It is probable the cast was very drunk. At times it was unclear what play was being performed, or why. All that can be said for certain is that at some point the performance came to an end. Whether this was after Prospero’s epilogue or at an arbitrary point anywhere from Act III onwards is open to debate. If there was applause, it can only have been because those left in the audience could then go to the pub.
Not deterred, the next was a student production in Durham in the early 1980s. It was magical; the play performed on a balmy summer’s evening on a wooded hillside beneath the magnificent Norman cathedral with the Wear flowing quiet below us. Outdoor performances are a risk, but the setting was perfect. As darkness fell and shadows deepened, lights picked out Ariel as he appeared first from behind one tree, then another and a third, to delight the audience and confound the play’s plotters and miscreants. At its conclusion, night had fallen and seemed all enveloping. The cathedral, river and city had ceased to exist – wonderfully appropriate for a play that speaks as much about the evanescence of all things as the power of love and the magic of art.
I next saw a performance in the mid-1990s, having now moved to Shropshire. It was an RSC touring production but was disappointing. I chiefly remember the effective use of back projection during the storm scene and some very splendid raiments purloined by Stephano and Trinculo. But if all that sticks in the mind is a clever piece of staging and some showy luggage, it’s probably fair to say it wasn’t a great evening out.
Not a great deal remains either of the next performance I saw, in Chester, in the early 2000s. This was a Girls’ School production for which my niece had designed Caliban’s costume. It was made of old ropes that gave its actor a bulky yet shapeless presence that seemed partly reminiscent of an orangutan’s tangled hair and part the sort of thing you might find washed ashore after a storm at sea. Great work, Lucy.
This was followed a few years later in 2005, when I took my teenaged son to a remarkable production at The Globe. It was the last work produced there under the artistic directorship of Mark Rylance in which he played Prospero and Stephano along with a bewildering number of minor characters. He was supported by Edward Hogg who played Miranda and Ariel and Alex Hassell who took the role of Caliban and just about any character not being played by the other two.
I could see the point of having only three actors play all parts since the drama is built on a constantly changing sequence of triangular relationships – Prospero, Miranda and Ariel/ Prospero, Miranda and Caliban/ Prospero, Ferdinand and Miranda/Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo etc. Despite this intellectual underpinning, the concept didn’t work entirely well on stage. I know the play in depth, but there were moments when I was uncertain who was playing whom and quite when Prospero had turned into Stephano or whether in fact he might be Alonso or Gonzalo. My son was even more confused, and I suspect remains so to this day.
Bewilderment aside, it was a compelling accomplishment and one that was brilliantly funny. I struggle with much of Shakespeare’s more sophisticated comic repartee which doubtless delighted the Jacobean intelligentsia but now requires pages of exegesis. Jokes that have to be explained, don’t generally raise many laughs while a line such as ‘Monster, I do smell all horse-piss’ can bring the house down.
Shakespeare’s low-life characters remain a delight and their uncomplicated humour remains rude and fresh. As long as we are human we will probably find farts and bums hilarious, along with any infantile reference to genitalia or copulation. Shakespeare knew this and was at first more than happy to provide what his audience wanted.
Shakespeare’s dramatic company included at least two notable clowns, Will Kempe and Robert Armin. The former is said to have played the roles of Dogberry and Falstaff amongst others, but left around 1600. The reason for his departure isn’t certain, though it’s possible Shakespeare wished to refine his comedy. For his successor, Armin, he created the roles of Feste and Touchstone as well as the Fool in King Lear – parts that rely more on wordplay and causticity of wit than slapstick.
That may be true, but in Stephano and Trinculo he reverted to more traditional knockabout clowning. What the Rylance production made clear was how much scope Shakespeare left for unscripted, purely physical comedy. In the scene in which Trinculo hides under Caliban’s gabardine, the comic homoerotic potential of two men writhing around under a coat was fully explored – in a way that the girl’s school version unaccountably failed to exploit.
There was a similar a restraint in the most recent production I saw, in mid-July. Produced by The Oswestry Drama Project as part of the Cultural Olympiad and supported by the RSC’s Open Stages project, it had a cast of more than thirty, the actors ranging in age from 7 to 83. Emphasis was evidently on inclusivity and contributions were variable in quality. Huw Sayer was notably good as Prospero. He has a fine, sonorous voice and a commanding stage presence and was well supported by Andrew Humphreys as Caliban and Michael Jenkins as Stephano. There were also some charming dance sequences, an enjoyable enchanted feast and some excellent percussion – especially strong in the opening storm scene.
It’s perhaps not surprising that amateur companies prefer to take on Shakespeare’s comedies rather than the tragedies. I’ve seen at least three wonderfully good productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dreamand not even bad attempts at Lear, Othello or Hamlet. There will be many reasons for this. One perhaps, is that in our errors and fallibilities we are nearer to Quince, Snout, Flute, Bottom, Stephano and Trinculo than we are to the tragic heroes. It takes great actors to play the parts of great men and women. Most of us take the less demanding roles – and probably have far more fun in the process.
This has been a special summer in the UK, with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, Olympics, Paralympics and Cultural Olympiad. All events seem to have merged into a vast and very expensive party. One morning we might wake up, look at the balance sheet and declare it was madness. One morning we might wake up and wonder why we’d all become so excited about people running and biking and riding horses and the rest. We might, but not just yet.