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A CurtainUp Review
Well I suppose that it might have been tempting providence to open Shakespeare's play of revenge and forgiveness The Tempest at the open air re-creation of an Elizabethan theatre, The Globe, on a bank holiday weekend. Yes, the heavens opened too, at both the matinée and evening performances, to welcome Vanessa Redgrave as Prospero. Last year, Mark Rylance the Artistic Director, played Cleopatra. This year Vanessa Redgrave follows Sarah Bernhardt, Fiona Shaw, Frances de la Tour and Kathryn Hunter in taking on a heavyweight male Shakespearean part.
At The Globe, twin huge pillars supporting the roof absorb much of the voice so that the venue is more suited to actors who can declaim as they would have done in the seventeenth century, than those used to the close up performances of film and television. The Master of Play (director in twentieth century speak) Lenka Udovicki writes about the challenge of creating the magic of The Tempest without any special effects, lighting or smoke machines. To meet this challenge, what is needed are commanding performances from all the cast, great direction and a clarity of voice.
Instead, the play opens with an Algerian band on the balcony - what with the noise of the torrential rain and the live music, in the Middle Gallery I was unable to hear many of Shakespeare's opening words. What happens at The Globe is that the comedic scenes are received with absolute pleasure. Many of the crowd are visitors to London, they swarm into the pit to enjoy themselves as £5 a time groundlings. I have watched this phenomenon before. Shakespeare's comedy is often dependent on subtle puns not understood today by anyone except those who have made an academic study of the plays. Two years ago, The Globe imported actors trained in the tradition of commedia del arte from the Théatre de Complicité into their productions of 1998. These skilled actors knew how to "work a crowd" and their involvement with the audience was very well received.
In The Tempest, Caliban, (Jasper Britton) the inhuman dispossessed creature of Shakespeare's play, is the most popular character with the Globe crowd. His appearance, loin cloth, sores all over his body and horns instead of hair on his scalp, amused instead of repelled. Jasper Britton's antics will bring a smile to all but the most hardened critic's face, although slinging raw sardines into the crowd is unashamedly fishing for a laugh. Kananu Kirimi, who is making her acting debut, is a sweetly innocent Miranda but Sam Parks' Ferdinand seems a tad too old for her. Stephano (Stephan Rhodri) and Trinculo (Steven Alvey) make the most of their scenes with Caliban in the drunken plot to take over the island. Redgrave's Prospero clad in patched shepherd's garb and boots looks like a country farmer rather than a magician, whereas white faced, powdered hair Ariel, (Geraldine Alexander) in white suit with pleated skirt is like a young mirror of her master.
Redgrave has adopted an accent for Prospero, part Northern Irish, part Scottish but wavering so that at one point I wondered if she was trying for archaic Elizabethan English. She is a fine actress, I can still hear her brilliant "Rosalind", but as Prospero, she seemed to me, ill cast. True, Prospero is an intangible part, where gender is not Prospero's defining characteristic, but the part needs an ethereal quality. Redgrave's Prospero does seem to care more for Miranda than the masculine controlling personality may do but the impact of his cruelty to both Ariel and Caliban is lost in this interpretation. The enjoyment of The Tempest should rest on its mystery and poetry.
The theatre itself is a marvellous experience, set on the banks of the Thames, a tribute to Sam Wanamaker's vision and persistence. Though there was nothing exceptional about this production it is an exceptional experience to see Shakespeare in London in an original setting and starring a famous Shakespearean actress.
A caveat: Hire a cushion and that only the rear seats in any gallery have a back rest.