2012 has been the year of The Tempest. During this year of the World Shakespeare Festival at least three productions have been seen in the UK, and the play featured in the opening ceremonies for both the Olympics and Paralympics. Danny Boyle took much of his inspiration from the play’s themes of magic, humanity and reconciliation, entitling the ceremony “Isles of Wonder”. Kenneth Branagh, dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, delivered Caliban’s “The isle is full of noises” speech, and for the Paralympics Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemmings gave us Ian McKellen as Prospero delivering speeches inspired by the play while Nicola Miles-Wildin as Miranda delivered her lines on the beauty of mankind, “O brave new world that has such people in it”.
At the British Museum’s current Shakespeare: Staging the World exhibition the final room is devoted to the play. The room is bathed in light after the darkness of the rest of the exhibition. Here we find terrestrial and celestial Globes symbolising exploration and discovery, the Robben Island Shakespeare reminding us of Shakespeare’s universal importance, and a recording of Ian McKellen delivering one of Prospero’s final speeches about reconciliation.
The productions have been as varied as the rest of the year’s Shakespeare offerings. The Globe to Globe production was performed in Bangla by the Dhaka Theatre of Bangladesh, with English subtitles. This vibrant production is available to view on The Space.
The RSC’s production is one of the trilogy of Shipwreck plays with Jonathan Slinger as a young, angry Prospero in David Farr’s modern dress production.
Last Saturday another production of the play, directed by Adrian Noble, closed at the Theatre Royal in Bath. Noble’s production has been adapted from the San Diego Festival where it was the hit of 2011.
I was at the final performance, on the night before the closing ceremony of the Paralympics. Like the Olympics and Paralympics the production celebrated life, joy and emotion. In the build-up to the closing ceremony comedian Jimmy Carr was interviewed. “I’ve had a summer off from cynicism” he said.
This production connects with the audience from the start: Tim Pigott-Smith strides downstage, surveys the house sternly and strikes the boards with his magic staff. Pigott-Smith has played his fair share of unpleasant characters but here he doesn’t remain harsh for long. Miranda, played by Iris Roberts and Ferdinand (Mark Quartley) are a couple many fathom deep in love, and the atmosphere of delight is shared with the cast of curious islanders. Comedy is in the reliable hands of Geoffrey Freshwater and Mark Hadfield.
The programme editorial by Stuart Leeks focuses on the history of theatrical magic, but points out that although it’s now possible to create illusions by the use of projected images, “the greatest magic in The Tempest surely lies in the words used to summon up the fabric of this vision: the extraordinarily rich, supple, compacted verse”. In this well-spoken production magic is summoned, not by technology, but by a huge blue silk cloth. The islanders use it to make waves, to conceal entrances and exits, cover objects, as a dance partner. Ariel’s shadow as the Harpy is projected onto it, and the red eyes of the dogs that pursue Stephano and Trinculo glow behind it.
At the end of the play Prospero speaks his final speech on a bare stage. He asks for help “or else my project fails/Which was to please”. He finds his redemption in connecting with the rest of humanity, and the cast joyfully leave the stage to clasp the hands of the audience.
Our revels now are ended: this summer both sport and culture have celebrated the human spirit with optimism and warmth. Long may it continue.