Tip Top Puppets
on Fri 20 Feb 2009 12:44 PM GMT | Permanent Link
I went to Stratford the other day to see the RSC production of The Tempest. This show has a lot of puppets. They add a splash of colour and scale. This is Shakespeare meets the Lion King (itself based on Hamlet). As a puppeteer it was great to see so many puppets being used, but I couldn't help feeling that they were mostly set dressing. There were lots of puppeteers listed in the programme, but I think this was a very loose defination based on being able to run about a lot with things on sticks. (What a shame that the RSC have forgotten what was achieved in Venus and Adonis through working with highly skilled professional 'puppeteers'). There were moments when it felt like there was going to be some powerful puppetry but these always to evaporate before they could be developed. Some moments were just plain silly. The opening storm which was brought to life using a giant sea monster reminiscent of a Chinese dragon was a case in point. It just didn't work because it wasn't really done with any conviction. Throughout it was as if nobody involved really believed in the power of the puppets. They make for absolutely stunning production photos, but that isn't quite enough.
In fact the whole production seemed to skip along on fairly superficial level. On the surface it suggested profoundness but this seemed like much on the island to be founded on thin air. I don't really buy the Colonial interpretation of The Tempest. I know it often crops up in text books for school students and I can see why but I am not sure that the text really supports it if you look closely. Caliban does have a prior claim to island - but only just. It would be more accurate to say that all the characters are really strangers on a strange shore. Nor does Caliban really qualify to assume the mantle of Mandela as this production suggests. Caliban is actually the son of a witch and her union with the Devil. He is a self confessed would be rapist of Miranda which he is why he is confined by Prospero. The parallel is not perfect. There are huge questions in The Tempest about power and the use and abuse of it and dressing it up neatly as a story of colonialism seems a bit too simple.
The great Anthony Sher is hard to criticise but his performance here didn't really seem to mine the depths of Prospero's desperate situation. That said, perhaps I am being a little harsh as it is worth remembering that it seems likely that The Tempest was originally performed as a court entertainment to celebrate a wedding. Presenting it as a fairly lightweight spectacle in which big bright puppets play an important role might be perfectly in order. To this end Sher is a more than adequate master of ceromonies.
For me, as a comment on the dominance of a white ruling class over black minorities it misses its mark, for many reasons but not least because glancing at the RSC audience revealed no more than a couple of non white faces in the huge capacity crowd. There was something a little too comfortable about the whole context. This was a collaboration with the a South African company and there were Black South Africans on stage, but the only South Africans in the audience were very definately white - which seemed, to this old cynic, to be more than a little ironic.
This is a great show, with 'show' being the operative word. If you are looking for profound and disturbing theatre, look elsewhere. In those terms this is less of a Tempest and more of a Storm in a Tea Cup. But the white middle class audience at the performance I attended were looking for a show that wasn't too challenging with a well known face in the lead role and that is exactly what the RSC gave them.