The Tempest currently playing at The Theatre Royal Haymarket, and starring Ralph Fiennes in the lead role of Prospero, I have decided is my second favourite version. But, to be honest, it is highly unlikely that anyone is ever going to beat my favourite version of The Tempest which is ...
The Tempest at the Almeida which ran from 7 December 2000 to 17 February 2001
Extracted from the flyer (yes I kept it! - I am a big one for theatre memorabilia!):
"Our revels now are ended ..."
Before the Almeida Theatre closes for Lottery refurbishment for 14 months, the Almeida's Artistic Directors unite to present Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest - Ian McDiarmid playing Proepero and Jonathan Kent as director - in the shell of the half-demolished theatre.
Aidan Gillen, he of Queer as Folk fame, played Ariel.
Random connected fact - Jonathan Kent directed Emperor and Galilean at the National Theatre this year, with Ian McDiarmid playing Maximus.
Photo credit: http://www.photographersdirect.com/buyers/stockphoto.asp?imageid=1845616
So what was so special about THIS production of The Tempest?
I saw the production 10 years ago now, and it was not recorded, so what I am writing from is my memory of the production. As a piece, it completely and utterly blew me away. It brought the enchanted island and all of its inhabitants - humans and spirits - to life right before my eyes - the island that had grown up in my imagination when I had studied the play as a teenager for my A Levels.
Ian McDiarmid was brilliant as Prospero. A Prospero in the old style. Wise and magisterial (and grumpy!). The old God on the island. Aidan Gillen as Ariel was a revelation. He moved like lightning around the stage, he was brimming with life and energy, mischievous as hell (I loved that about him), mercurial and - well - just so sprite-like! For me, he really embodied the life and soul of Ariel. Anyone else is going to have to go a long way to go to beat Aidan! So, the first, standout was the acting.
Then the second standout was the set, which looked like this ...
Photo credit: http://www.ahds.rhul.ac.uk/ahdscollections/docroot/shakespeare/imagedetails.do?imageId=13896
What more do I need to say? It was genius! They had transformed the Almeida stage into a watery island. The Almeida, for those non-Londoners who do not know it, was at the time a very small and intimate theatre - not that different from the Cottesloe as it is now. So, when you saw this production, you really felt as though you were on the island with the characters. It was a very special feeling. You do get that feeling occasionally with site-specific pieces; it is much harder to create that in a theatre.
The production ran for 2 hours, with no interval. That means that for the 2 hours that you were in the theatre, you were transported onto the island, and on the island with the humans and the spirits. The play conforms to the Unities and running the production for 2 hours straight with no interval added to the immediacy of the piece.
The production was magical, enchanted, and truly beautiful. The acting was outstanding. The whole piece blew me away.
I will leave you with a photo of Aidan Gillen as Ariel:
Photo credit: http://hammerxsword.tumblr.com/post/8697291151/shelikeswaves-aidan-gillen-as-ariel-in-the
Extracted from the programme (yes I kept that as well!):
"A mighty wizard, whose potent art could not only call up spirits of the deep, but the characters as they were and are and will be, (Prospero) seems a portrait of the bard himself."
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Shakespearian Criticism
"Prospero's art confers on him some of the power of the gods. He can raise the winds and darken the sun, shake the earth and command spirits unsubdued by the black magic of a witch like Sycorax. He can even raise the dead. What his white magic cannot do is, significantly, the one thing that matters most: to alter the nature and inclinications of the individual human heart."
- Anne Barton, 1968