The Tempest at the Novello Theatre, London



I just got back from spending a week in London and have alot to blog about. I will begin with some informal reflections on Rupert Goold’s astonishing production of The Tempest, featuring Patrick Stewart as Prospero, at the Novello Theater on Aldwych in the West End.

This Royal Shakespeare production cuts against the grain of what I would assume to be most interpretations of the setting of The Tempest. Rather than set the play in a tropical, island setting, Goold and his set designer Giles Cadle set it in the arctic north, a land of buckling ice and whipping snowstorms. There’s a stripped down, austerely beautiful quality to this reimagining, even though it sometimes seems to fly in the face of the particulars of the play itself (after all, Prospero frees Ariel from a tree after his shipwreck and in Cadle’s frozen landscape there are no forests or trees to be found). However, as Cadle says in this video interview, set design is about “psychological” space, and setting Shakespeare’s final play in the frozen north, with its brittle angles of ice and glacier, and the long, desolate, distant horizon in the background, does intensify the emotions of the characters and highlights the themes of anger, rage and solitude.

The opening of the play was particularly beautiful. The action takes place in the speaker of a radio, as a tempest of projected waves and static roars around it. It was a bit difficult to hear the actors, but visually it was smashing.


Ariel, as played by Julian Bleach , was a disturbing spectre, not dissimilar in appearance to Edward Scissorhands or Pinhead from the Hellraiser films. His powder white face, shock of hair, and long, dark flowing robes, make him an eerie if not terrifying presence on stage. He first appears, shockingly, out of a metal barrel, spitting and raging at Prospero, whipping against the edges of the barrel, emoting not only through his words but through the tipping forward and backwards of his head. This horrific vision of Ariel was a great surprise, and a refreshing take on the otherworldly nature of this character. I agree with Alex over at Heuristic Blog , who writes that “The treatment of Ariel is by far the most interesting in the play; he was so distinctive that he even overshadowed Prospero, dare I say it. Though unfortunately it really undermined the dynamic of the original Shakespeare: the relationship between Ariel and Prospero was no longer believable as Ariel was awarded such high status. Prospero calls him ‘delicate’ but that word could not be further from my mind when describing him.” John Light played Caliban, and I was impressed by one telling detail: Light spends most of the play squatting and on his knees, thus embodying his subjugated state.

I had a great time at the Novello Theater watching The Tempest. Patrick Stewart was wonderful. He has an edgy look and is very athletic, two qualities that make for a great Prospero, who, after all, is bursting with magic and rage. I will never forget how Stewart delivered those final lines, his eyes glittering as he stared right out into the audience, and, as it appeared to me, straight at me.

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own;
Which is most faint; now ’tis true,
I must be here confin’d by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got,
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell:
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be reliev’d by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

A great experience indeed, up there with seeing Luciano Pavarotti play Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Boheme in 1987.

More on my trip to London soon, including some comments on the astonishingly original and challenging multilingual production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream at the Roundhouse Theater.


2 thoughts on “The Tempest at the Novello Theatre, London

  1. Light spends most of the play squatting and on his knees, thus embodying his subjugated state.

    Yes, that’s a good point. I suppose it goes some way to re-establishing the dominant role of Prospero.

    Fortunate you saw it; Stewart said that he was soon finishing the Tempest, though thankfully, he’ll be continuing Shakespearian roles.

    I know someone who saw the play when it was on at Stratford. The audience started applauding at the line “With the help of your good hands.”

    Anyway, hope you had a good time in England.

  2. Thanks for posting this. I’m currently on a binge of the BBC Shakespeare collection. I didn’t realize Stewart was acting Shakespeare on a regular basis–I hope he will not perform the “Klingon Hamlet”–

    Did you get an opportunity to see a play at the Globe?

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