Put your programmes down, stop talking and please switch off your phones – or you’ll be given a severe pinching. The lights come up and we are thrown headlong into the storm; The Tempest certainly starts with a roar. In act one, the marooned Duke of Milan, Prospero, recounts to his daughter, Miranda, how they both were betrayed and set adrift at sea. Since then Prospero has become a great sorcerer and set in motion a grand scheme to exact revenge against those who exiled him.
Jonathan Slinger brings great power to the role of Prospero. His control is often shattered with outbursts that give him an air of impending violence. He seethes with rage, often taking it out on his monstrous slave Caliban, but shows tenderness to his daughter. His mood is as mutable as the vast sea that surrounds him and makes him just as formidable.
Prospero owns the show, with the spirit Ariel sharing the spotlight further down the billing. Another servant to Prospero, Ariel is an island native bound to him – tempered by tailoring as the spirits wear the same suit as the sorcerer. And so, chaos is contorted into a imitation of order. This relationship was the most interesting to me and the two characters were the most well developed. The intimacy in their scenes was truly moving and held more depth than the relationship seen between father and daughter.
Another stand out performance came from Kirsty Bushell, playing King Alonso’s treacherous sibling, Sebastian. Whilst her character may be called Sebastian, having him played by a woman was inspired and felt to be such a good fit for the character you couldn’t imagine seeing it played by a man. Overlooked for the crown because of her sex, you could see why the anger could boil up. My only qualm would be how the witty banter between Sebastian and Antonio disappears as they are found out, it was a highlight and a shame it had to end simply because they were caught.
The Tempest is a strange beast, a bit misshapen like Caliban, where large swathes of it feels like a tragedy until the last scene where miraculously everything is restored to how it ought to be. To lighten the mood we are given the comic foibles of Trinculo and Stephano. They are dressed in marvelous costumes and have all the wit and mannerisms of petulant children. It makes for highly entertaining viewing.
Tragedy and comedy are well represented, and then we have the love story. Prince Ferdinand and the innocent Miranda fall in love instantly. The action of the whole play is said to only last three hours so they must have been engaged a brisk 90 minutes after meeting each other. It is a pretty romance but the characters can’t compete for attention with some of their bolder island dwellers, they even get upstaged by the staging itself.
The set is deceptively simple at first glance. Broken floorboards, a few rocks, and an ominous glass cube are all you can see. But as the play progresses it is used in increasingly clever ways that make the most of the space. The masts of the ship loom into view, the box becomes a crystal ball into which we can peer, and spirits disappear into the floor as if it was thin air. The lighting and music brought you the rest of the way to this magical island.
The costumes were strong but I could not get my head around the nymph costumes; sheer silver suits with ruffs are definitely a statement, I just have no idea what it was meant to say. It conjured up images of naff 90s sci-fi and stuck out when all the other costumes appeared to be so meticulously thought out, especially the imposed uniform of Prospero and Ariel; it said a lot when the former held his sturdy staff and the latter a light violin bow.
The central relationship between Prospero and Ariel was so well done that it made a good show quite brilliant. It goes to show that all the cleverness and magic of theatre is the glamour but when you come down to it, it’s the heart of the show that matters; two wonderfully talented actors delivering excellent dialogue.
The Tempest is playing at the Roundhouse as part of the World Shakespeare Festival until 5 July. For more information and tickets see the Roundhouse website.