A slightly edited version of this review will appear this winter in Shakespeare Bulletin, alongside reviews of As You Like It (Bridge Project) and Measure for Measure (Theatre for a New Audience). Anybody see any of these productions last winter?
How many versions of Prospero have we each seen or imagined? Even though we no long believe the old stories about the play as Shakespeare’s self-portrait, there’s something about this familiar figure—magician, teacher, slave-holder, father—that carries the over-ripe taste of the familiar. Even very strong performances by big-name actors—Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan—can, in retrospect, fade into the role rather than putting an individual stamp upon it. Stephen Dillane’s Prospero, while very faithful to the text, was probably the most distinctive I’ve seen. He played the magician as threadbare and scholarly, deeply engaged with his inner spirits. He arrived on stage for the first scene before the house lights went down and was distractedly reading a book. Sam Mendes’s direction emphasized Prospero’s control of the island by having all the play’s action take place inside the sand circle of his art, with the actors not performing in each scene sitting motionless around the edge of the stage like marionettes without strings. Despite his control inside the circle, Dillane’s Prospero didn’t feel all-powerful. He paced urgently around the circle in the storm scene (the impact of which was slightly muted by having the wizard visible from the start); he seemed angry and impatient in the “great globe itself” speech (4.1); and he needed to blindfold Miranda in 1.2. The production emphasized both Prospero’s power and his human frustration with that power. He controlled everything inside his circle, but that circle itself, which seemed to represent a navigator’s compass and a child’s sand box as well as a conjuror’s circle, was frustratingly small. There was a lot outside that Prospero could not dominate.
The empty recesses of the stage, filled with the slumping figures of actors not participating in Prospero’s action, testified to the limits of his power. This part of the stage contained perhaps two inches of water, as if it were the edge of the ocean itself, the shores of which marked the limits of human and dramatic magic. This opacity and emptiness helped explain Prospero’s sometimes perplexing anxiety, his worries about managing a series of events that he seems always to have well in hand. In Mendes’s production, there was always something visible on stage outside of his control. The emotional urgency of Dillane’s performance finally burst through in the epilogue, for which he stripped himself down to an undershirt and boxer shorts and spat out his lines in a mixture of contempt and deep need: “Let your indulgence set me free.” I’ve never been so moved by those very familiar lines, never seen a Prospero who so desperately needed indulgence.
Not everything in this production was as strong as Dillane’s performance. Juliet Rylance’s Miranda seemed a bit insipid, as if, lacking the physical and dramatic range of her Rosalind, she could find little to do with the part. Edward Bennett, who was so striking as Oliver, played Ferdinand with much less punch. Christian Camargo’s Ariel wore some great costumes, especially a striking full-sized harpy get-up with black wings, but even though the relationship between Prospero and his magical servant seemed to be at the heart of the production, the spirit himself seemed static. Ron Cephas Jones’s Caliban presented himself, uncomfortably, as a kind of natural slave, ceding the play’s emotional center to Ariel’s claims upon his master. It was, above all, a production that revolved around its lead actor; any Tempest must be Prospero-centric, but none of the other actors, not even the fine Alvin Epstein as Gonzalo, managed to escape his overshadowing presence.
The one element of the production that rivaled Dillane was the set design and the lighting. The circle-plus-ocean design of the stage managed to convey Prospero’s near-omnipotence inside his magic realm and also the vast emptiness outside it. The staging of Ariel’s song (“Full fathom five…”) in 1.2 was especially memorable. The stage lights glimmered on the water that surrounded the sand circle. Prospero’s urgent pacing around his circle slowed down. Inside, at the center, Ariel gathered Ferdinand in a seductive and constrictive embrace, while the spirit, along with the on-stage chorus of women who would later play the goddesses in the masque, sang to him. The effect was other-worldly. It was as close to a vision of the bottom of the sea as I’ve ever seen on stage. Five fathoms down, with a King’s body that is not really there, Prospero showed the prince and the audience a vision of dramatic transformation and its threatening consequences.