Saturday, 26 November 2016

A tale of two sittings…

Mark Quartley (Ariel); Simon Russell Beale (Prospero) – photo by Topher McGrillis © RSC

It was the best of sight-lines, it was the worst of sight-lines, it was the stage of wisdom, it was the stage of foolishness, it was the epoch of humanity, it was the epoch of technology, it was the viewpoint of Light, it was the viewpoint of Darkness, it was the visibility of presumption, it was the invisibility of forethought…

Introduction: The emperor’s new seat…
Before I (sort of) pronounce judgment on my second visit to The Tempest – and hand down my wonted hundred sentences (or so) – I want to make one thing clear: Any drama production which values only a minority of the audience is – whatever its qualities for that minority – a failure. [That this failure has been propagated by the RSC’s Artistic Director and one of its most experienced designers just makes things so very much worse. If there are two people on this planet who should understand the audience dynamics and perspectives of this theatre, then, surely it is these? That they have failed to do so is inexplicable. It is also unforgivable. (And, yes, I understand that different price-points buy you different experiences – but not ones with such stark differences, surely…?)]

I also need to explain why I was there…. As a result of my previous review, I had been invited “as a guest of the RSC”. I had also been given a “superseat”, in the Stalls. But, like the worst sort of champagne (or, in my case, Aberlour 100 Proof) socialist, glued to that superseat, I felt genuinely guilty about my new vantage point: knowing that others (whose gaze would not meet mine) were not so fortunate.

It is, they agree, a huge undertaking…. Rehearsed in three weeks, teched in three days, the panto machine has a lot of cogs: scenes, routines, choreography plus all the bells and whistles, magic and dry ice. “You’re using all the tricks you can,” says McKenna. McDougall nods: “It’s another level of difficult than I’ve experienced before. So many elements have to come together.”
     Not least the audience. “They’re the last member of your cast,” McKenna stresses. “If you ignore them for a second, they back off for good.”

That such a piece of experimental theatre has been carried out – an expensive gamble, in reality… – at the punter’s expense (both in monetary and anticlimactic terms) is simply not ethical. The whole run at Stratford-upon-Avon is virtually sold-out – with now only formally-labelled (rather than thoughtlessly accidental) “Restricted View” seats available for many shows – not because of the reviews (although these have mostly been positive: mainly, I feel, due to the critics’ seating positions and the relative wow-factor novelty); but because of the hype that has been generated over the last year or so. Yes, I am a Patron – and a lifelong visitor and fan – but, for many reasons (many of which I will and can not go into here), I believe the RSC should feel corporately ashamed.

In summary: If my earlier review captured what it was to experience the black-and-white, monaural radio version of the play, then what follows is the Technicolor, high-definition, surround sound, 3D cinema version (over 90% of which, visually – astoundingly… – was new to me). I count myself fortunate to have seen it – see Postscript – but that does not mean that this review is not tinged with sadness (as well as the guilt outlined above).

Not really a review: Now I want Spirits to enforce, art to enchant…
Firstly – and this is a major illustration of just how much difference the position of my seat made – the play, which had dragged a week ago, flew by. Secondly, half-immersed (not fully: because of my previous experience; and despite my trying to see the production afresh, having left my first impressions – mostly – at home…), with the cast and their actions now given context, this was also a much more satisfactory viewing. The large number of things which had left me puzzled before now made sense. Or, as Alex says in A Clockwork Orange, “It’s funny how the colours of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.” [Whether you take this as a warning, or as praise, when experiencing such a brave new world of such experimental hyperreality, probably depends on both your physical and mental points of view. (It may be – after the shock of the Brexit and Trump votes – that we require such an escape. But not into a world like this: controlled by the whims of one man.)]

What I took away, this time, though – even granted the now perfect vantage point – was not how powerful, how more meaningful – how improved (although far from perfect) – the technical effects were; but how variable Simon Russell Beale’s performance is – or perhaps how different it appears with and without the accompaniment of visible wizardry. His reviews have been mixed: and, although some of the grounds for this are manifestly subjective, it did feel – after trying to make allowances for my slightly deeper immersion (at least I got my toes wet, etc.) – that the man was a lot more involved in proceedings, last night. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the greatest scenes were those where he was alone on stage; and that he outshone everyone else by quite some margin.

To be honest (and to keep the word-count and my bedtime manageable), my friend Kirk’s thoughtful review says much of what I wanted to, and tried to: especially with regards to direction and acting (although see below). However, we don’t agree on everything – so feel free to compare and contrast! (He is, however, more magnanimous than I am – not letting his first experience so colour his second, as I have done.)


I still found the humour too broadly played: and wondered why there was a need for such exaggerated stereotyping. At my first viewing, I struggled to keep up with Simon Trinder’s Trinculo: no matter what programme my hearing aids were set to – but this time, most of the dialogue was considerably clearer (which, of course, also helped me feel more involved). However, Ariel’s first lines from the very back of the stage – had I not known the play so well – would have remained a mystery. [It is worth noting that my hearing aids were again set to sample both direct sound and the RST’s normally infallible induction loop: so, as the latter is piped directly from the sound booth, I was left a little perplexed as to why this should be. (Only a little, though. My experience – although I am beginning to sound like a broken record on this topic – is that both music and audio-effects frequently render such speech into mime.)]

I had struggled with the sound before, though: and an online discussion with others who had also seen the production led me to considering the projectors as culprits. However, in the Stalls, there was an overlayed buzz of electrical interference playing hornet-style havoc with my hearing aids, every time there was a gap in the dialogue, no matter whether these twenty‑seven leviathans were on or off. At first, I had believed this to be a sound-effect: distant waves crashing against the island’s shore, perhaps. It was only when I reverted to live sound just before Prospero’s final speech that I confirmed that this audible hum was just a darned nuisance caused by all the surrounding gizmology emitting some form of electrical interference.


Talking of which… – I described them as “various randomly-appearing diaphonous screens” in my original review: but I now know that the technical team at the RSC has designated this disquieting device “the vortex” – although, bizarrely, I prefer Quentin Letts’ characterization, in the Daily Mail, of them as “chimneys of silk lowered from on high”. This captures, more accurately, I feel, the steaming, menacing insubstantiality of dark satanic melanism that constantly hovers over us.

I wouldn’t say the effects wowed me – sometimes I could not make out what I was actually seeing; other times, having two non-synchronized Ariels on stage prompted low-level motion sickness – but I finally did see their point. And, had I not been coloured by their previous invisibility, would surely have been utterly drawn in by them.

And, yes, Stephen Brimson Lewis’ design is obviously inventive; and again captivating. But it doesn’t need special-effects to make it so; and it’s about time he stopped going too far behind the old proscenium arch (for visibility’s and the audience’s sake – although this often happens in his partnerships with Doran: e.g. Henry V…). It will be interesting to see how it is adapted for the run at the Barbican, that’s for sure.



But what about the actors? Literally fish out of water, the first time around; as I said above, the new contexts – the effects; the obvious placement within the theatrical space/environment; newly-visible physical relationships… – brought polish to their performances: particularly Mark Quartley’s strangely hen-like (in both looks and moves) Ariel.

Now that I have had a chance to observe him more thoroughly, he appears to have arrived at the RSC after fronting a Muse concert – although his stage persona is paradoxically a lot less eccentric, a lot more subdued (and, I presume, intentionally). It’s as if his subservience to Prospero has additionally, and completely, incarcerated any jot of character or development. But he does begin to mature a little as the eternal elasticity of the deadline for his freedom finally becomes finite and snaps into place: and it is, therefore, ultimately, why his relationship with Prospero seems more cogent than Miranda’s.

This partnership culminates (as, it seems to me, does the whole play) in Ariel asking his stern father-figure of a captor – like some small child exploring both the definition of the word and the depth of promise it contains… –

Before you can say “come” and “go,”
And breathe twice, and cry “so, so,”
Each one, tripping on his toe,
Will be here with mop and mow.
Do you love me, master? No?

…a perfect, urgent, shocking restatement of Miranda’s abrupt interrogation of Ferdinand one act earlier: “Do you love me?” But this later challenge carries a hundred more times emotional heft. (And – much to my surprise – caused a sudden shoulder-shaking stream of tears to run down my face. Simon Russell Beale’s response, it has to be said, also affected me.)

Jenny Rainsford’s Miranda – strangely looking a lot older than in Love for Love, and certainly well out of her teenage years… – was too simply characterized: her supposed emotions – perhaps representing her naïveté – jagged, rather than subtle; jumping up steps, rather than running along a spectrum. [I wondered if there was a connection I had missed, the first time around – and which drove this spasmodic behaviour – that is, Miranda’s realization of a world beyond “this island we arriv’d”: her isolation perhaps deriving from Plato’s allegory of the cave. (But perhaps this was Shakespeare’s own implication; not Doran’s exaggerated inference?)]

Daniel Easton (Love for Love again), as Ferdinand, was a little too gauche for my liking – but effective, nonetheless. Tom Turner (yet another Love for Love refugee), as Sebastian, was also not allowed to shine, as he did in the earlier production. Joseph Mydell, though, as Gonzalo – a Polonius with a big heart – was terrific; and his concerns felt truly genuine. (I know this sounds cruel: but very few of the speaking cast made much of an impact in the way that usually provokes me to run through the whole list, devoting a whole paragraph to each….)

Joe Dixon’s Caliban, however, continually broke my heart: although (as I said in my first review) his portrayal worried me. I have always believed that Caliban is (for want of a better word) a savage creation – meaning both untamed and uncivilized (as natural as the island he was born of/on) as well as ferocious and furious – rather than the “creature who’s a bit slow on the uptake” portrayed here (however sympathetic I felt). In some ways, despite his obvious love of beautiful things (“Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not”), he is, as a monster (perhaps even the alter ego of his conqueror), as brutish and as violent as Prospero’s enslaving of him. Although we should therefore feel pity for this tragic figure, I also believe we should be more than a little “afeard” of him.

Here, the balance is overweighted to the former (his ‘otherness’ inciting mockery and advantage-taking – he is not even tragicomic; just comic…): yet another example of the removal of subtlety, of shade, of doubt. (For all the colour we are frequently bathed in: the depictions of persona and plot seem awfully black-and-white.)

One thing – just a tiny thing, really – seems a bit odd, given the liberties taken with the setting and approach. That is, having the actors use the Elizabethan pronunciation “Millen” instead of the more recognizable “Milan”. Authenticity doesn’t seem to be an important consideration here, so why say Millen when you mean Milan?”

If I gave stars – which I don’t – like commercial reviewers; and, if I hadn’t initially ‘seen’ the production from the wrong seat – unlike commercial reviewers – then this second viewing might have merited a solid three. But, lying “Full fathom five”, drowned in the disappointment of my first experience – yet unable to “suffer a sea-change Into something rich and strange” – I am finding it difficult to reach any new judgments or conclusions. So I will simply let it be; and let you form your own….

Postscript: The jade he doth protest too much, methinks…
Normally (whatever that means), I would not have accepted what could easily have been seen, by some, as a bribe – i.e. my “superseat”, as “a guest of the RSC”; rather than a simple refund – and I did think long and hard about my decision.

In the end – satisfied that the whole (for want of another better word) ‘compensation’ process was transparent, and would be resolved with a complete absence of precondition (because both sides of the equation wanted and needed it to be) – I concluded that my acceptance was in no way a compromise (one of my least favourite critters). On top of which, I made it very clear to my contacts at the RSC – who made absolutely zero effort to persuade me otherwise – that my original review would stand; and my opinions and concerns expressed there not changed one iota – unless for good, theatrical, experiential reasons. (Regular readers of this blog will have expected nothing less of me, I presume. Although I do hope that you will not think my continued negativity – albeit now salved with the occasional application of approbation – anything other than sincere; and provoked by my usual frankness, rather than a misguided exigence of contrived criticism.)

Needless to say – enthusiastic theatre-goer that I am – I also did not want to miss out on any opportunity of witnessing – and communicating (reviewing, and thus recording) – what has been billed (accurately or not) as “an unforgettable theatrical experience”: especially one that – good or bad – may well go on to influence other productions that I see at the RSC and elsewhere. (This admittedly has a tinge of self-interest. But I certainly didn’t want the play to be “unforgettable” for all the wrong reasons; and without the benefit of any doubt.)

Lastly: I had failed to make it to a preview, the week before (one of many tickets booked many, many months ago, that have recently ended up unused, due to a decline in my health) – a performance where I would have had a great vantage point, just off-centre, in the Circle (pretty much directly above where I sat last night). So, offered that unexpected privilege (a concession I trust I have ‘earned’ through honesty and hard graft) of salvaging what I thought was irretrievable – of viewing this production as GD intended – I was going to grab that seat with both buttocks! (And with a clear conscience – but a fervent heart.)

Gratitude and appreciation must therefore be heaped on the Box Office staff who made this all possible; who dealt with the fallout from my original review; and who were friendly, genuine and open in their communication with me. They not only handled my complaints with patience, great thoughtfulness and sensitivity – especially with regards to my needs as a disabled audience member – but have clearly taken my concerns on board; and managed them to my satisfaction.

In a way, I think I owed it to them – as much as the RSC did to me – to see the production again, and give it a second chance: as a way of demonstrating my thanks and reciprocal trust: knowing that the additional negative remarks I have made will be comprehended as intended – and then, where/if practicable, dealt with.

If we do not tell such caring customer-facing staff when things go wrong for us, how will they know to (try and) sort them? (Any sympathy, or even empathy, they may have – however sincere – is obviously constrained by the requirements of corporate loyalty.) And if enough of us make them aware, then gradually – hopefully – perhaps the organization itself will begin to develop the same ethos as those helpful, thoughtful, attentive individuals: improving the experience for everyone. I have my doubts. But I also always try to give the benefit of them….

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