I recall seeing The Tempest, on a warm London summer’s day, last June. The performance was at the open air theatre in Hyde Park. The multi-platform stage, part ship’s bulk, part tree-house and the wonderfully comic and interactive rendition brought to life this great work for what was, mostly a family audience, with lots of […]
I recall seeing The Tempest, on a warm London summer’s day, last June. The performance was at the open air theatre in Hyde Park. The multi-platform stage, part ship’s bulk, part tree-house and the wonderfully comic and interactive rendition brought to life this great work for what was, mostly a family audience, with lots of children in attendance. Even though the play was performed in the original Shakespearean language, it was accessible enough that the kids were enthralled for the whole production.
Last Saturday night’s performance of The Tempest, directed by Sam Mendes as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival couldn’t have been more different. Indoors, on a cool spring night and on a mostly dark and evocatively lit stage we were treated to a sombre and contemplative reading of The Tempest. It’s not that the comedy and romance were stripped away, but they were certainly attenuated.
I’ve always seen the Tempest as one of one of Shakespeare’s most layered non-historical plays – comedy and romance wrap up what is, inherently a deeply unsettling vision of old age.
“ …retire me to my Milan, where every third thought shall be my grave.”
Prospero in this interpretation is a dark and calculating sorcerer, but not without humanity and deep abiding love for his daughter. This clemency is important because some stagings of The Tempest lean too much into Prospero’s manipulative nature. It’s an easy temptation to give into, to stage the play as a macabre biography of Shakespeare himself.
Moreover, this version does a good job of balancing the arcane politics (it was cut down in a number of ways). We were never bogged down in the detail of the courts of Naples and Milan. The sharp focus, on the politicians rather than the politics made the performance feel more contemporary and direct.
Technically, the staging was compelling. The live music (two musicians, one on each side of the stage), worked well with the action (the hang drum especially creating a mood that was both up to date and mysterious). The centre of the stage was a circle of sand that was used in varying ways to create space, intimacy, peril, menace and earthy connections. The lighting was sublime, creating not just suggestions of space and time but also colour and emotion. The diction and dialogue was crisp, coloured and dynamic (all too often Shakespeare’s lines are barked out like the rantings of an angry football fan, or watered down by a simpering, sub-poetic lilt).
Perhaps more than any other production I’ve seen, this left me with a complex vision of Prospero. His Machiavellian vengeance is tempered with humanity and a measure of what can only be described as grace. This is a Prospero driven neither by resentment nor wrath. Instead, he appears to understand human nature at a deeper level than any of the other players and rather than perpetually reaching for the power to control others, he instead is consistently relenting from exercising full control over their destiny.
Perhaps this Prospero, more than some others has really learnt something from all those years alone on the deserted island with his books – something about rising above power, spite and competition?