Well Constant Reader, that's *that* crossed off the list. For some reason, I have never seen a production of THE TEMPEST. I know... killing isn't it? Not even when Vanessa Redgrave played Prospero at The Globe - and if I didn't see that....
I had seen Derek Jarman's 1979 film version but remember being totally baffled by it as I was not familiar with the play - all I remember was Elisabeth Welch as a Goddess singing STORMY WEATHER - utterly brilliant! Sadly Miss Welch was not available for reasons of mortality to join the cast at the Old Vic on Thursday. More's the pity.Sam Mendes' production is the latest in his much-vaunted and slightly pretentiously-titled Bridge Project in which two productions are cast with both English and American actors. Much is always made of this, Kenneth Branagh could bore for Britain on the AMAZING concept of using UK/US actors play Shakespeare, but it's been going on for years ffs! John Gielgud's Hamlet to Lillian Gish's Ophelia; Paul Robeson's Othello to Peggy Ashcroft's Desdemona; James Mason's Brutus and Gielgud's Cassius to Marlon Brando's Marc Antony and Louis Calhern's JULIUS CAESAR, Gielgud's Henry IV to Orson Welles' Falstaff in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT etc.
I saw one of Mendes' Bridge productions last year THE WINTER'S TALE which was ok thanks to the performances of Simon Russell Beale and Sinead Cusack but hardly earth-shattering. THE TEMPEST sadly cannot draw on even these talents.
Within 10 minutes of the production starting I was groaning. I had heard the reports that Stephen Dillaine as Prospero was muffling his delivery but even before he spoke we had Alvin Epstein making noises as Gonzalo - "Ee o' eh' Ba Ee ho" was all I heard - and I was about 10 rows back in the stalls. I was all but shouting out "Speak from your bumhole not through it!"
Ok let's name names - out of the American actors I liked Christian Camargo's Ariel (hardly 'an airy spirit' but well-spoken and an arresting presence), Ron Cephas Jones' Caliban (again well-spoken and with a real stage presence), Jonathan Lincoln Fried as Alonson (a bit stolid but again well-spoken) and Thomas Sadoski as Stephano (a nice hair-trigger feeling of menace)Now the English - I liked Edward Bennett as Ferdinand but I was aware too that his over-emphatic delivery and stolid presence offers little variety in his performance, Anthony O'Donnell gave his usual sterling support as Trinculo making the 'rude mechanicals' scenes bearable and although Juliet Rylance was a convincing Miranda I found her delivery annoying, horribly reminiscent of Stella Gonet's matronly tones.
Which brings us to Stephen Dillaine as Propero. I must put my hand up to say I don't care for him much, I find his wheedling delivery profoundly irritating and earthbound. But who wants an earthbound Prospero? I don't understand how an actor can be given the opportunity to play one of the great roles and piss it away as Dillaine does. You want to feel the poetry in his lines? You want to hear Shakespeare speaking through him in his farewell to the theatre? Well you won't get it from Dillaine who plays the whole thing like an irritated old giffer moaning from his garden shed.I can only presume he is taking his lead from Mendes but it's a misguided lead. The production never felt to be leading anywhere or even know it had arrived. I waited for something to happen, to lift us out of the Old Vic to Prospero's unnamed island but we remained trapped in Tom Piper's cave-like set although Paul Pyant's subtle lighting shifts at least gave us an idea of where we should be in our minds.
As I sat there I found myself drifting back to Ian Charleson - although to be honest it doesn't take much for that to happen.
Ian was a well-received Ariel in 1978 at the Royal Shakespeare Company opposite Michael Hordern's Prospero and would have been sixty this year, the perfect age for Propero. Imagining the way Ian could have made the lines come alive made me resent Dillaine's whittering all the more.