The Tempest – RSC – Royal Shakespeare Theatre – Review


Jonathan Slinger – Prospero

I finally made the obligatory pilgrimage to Stratford Upon Avon this week, to see a few of the Shakespeare sites and to visit the Royal Shakespeare Theatre / Company. I saw the RSC do the Histories Cycle at the Roundhouse way back in 2006, and I was excited to see the new theatre and my favourite play of Shakespeare’s, The Tempest. Even more so as Jonathan Slinger was playing Prospero. His performance as Richard II back in 2006, is one of my all time most memorable pieces of acting I’ve seen.

The new Royal Shakespeare Theatre
(picture courtesy of

The new RST is a wonderful venue. We dined in the Rooftop Restaurant which was a wonderful venue with delicious food. I only have two gripes about the theatre – firstly the bookshop leaves a lot to be desired, a really poor selection I thought. Send one of your team to the National Theatre’s bookshop to see how to do it! Secondly, the seats in the theatre are also pretty uncomfortable. The Tempest is “only” two and a bit hours long, I dread to think what it’d be like sitting on those seats for Hamlet! It seems a shame that in all the effort and money that’s been spent on the theatre in the upgrade something as basic as seating was ignored.

Anyway “The Play’s the Thing”…

As I’ve said The Tempest is my favourite play of Shakespeare’s the magical Prospero, the comedy trio of Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano, the mystical Ariel, the lovers of Miranda and Ferdinand and the obligatory baddies of Sebastian (here played by a female) and Antonio, make for a dramatic play. It also contains some of Shakespeare’s finest lines, along with my all time favourite:

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”

No one does Shakespeare like the RSC and I’m pleased to say I wasn’t let down last night. I especially liked how Ariel was a mirror image of Prospero. Sandy Grierson, gave Ariel a nymph like poise and presence. Looking exactly like Prospero gave their relationship much more tension I thought. They both desire freedom, and that freedom is linked by what each can do for each other.

Jonathan Slinger gave his Prospero a complex range of emotions, not averse to snapping into a rage, we saw the confusion of the conjuror trying to manipulate the world via his magic to try to bring about the restoration he so strongly desires. Prospero is a hero, but with faults aplenty. Especially his treatment of the native Caliban. Prospero is a reflection of us all, trying to make our way through this life I feel, we all make mistakes, are blinded by our prejudices, but we are caught up in our own goals sometimes that we forget others around us.

The comedy was provided perfectly by Amer Hlehel as Caliban, Bruce Mackinnon as the drunk Stephano and Felix Hayes as Trinculo. Their physical and verbal comedy provided a great relief to the serious nature of this dark and melancholy comedy.

Emily Taaffe was a beautiful and fragile Miranda, whose love for Ferdinand was tangible. Solomon Israel played him with suitable amounts of dashing and desire. Their otherworldly wedding with conjured up spirits was a highlight for me.

I loved the haunting use of music throughout  as Ariel put some of the characters under his spell.

I came away with a greater appreciation for this mysterious and sublime play. Many of the words and images are still floating round my head, 24hrs later. I’ve come under Prospero’s spell once more and feel I shall always be so.

STARS : * * * *


44 thoughts on “The Tempest – RSC – Royal Shakespeare Theatre – Review

  1. Alas this production did nothing for us nor the rest of our party. We had very good seats in the stalls but most of the actors, most of all Prospero, gabbled their lines, making it difficult to hear. We left after the interval. So disappointing as we had travelled a long way

  2. Just got back home having left this dismal production at the interval. The acting was of the standard I expect from the RSC (And I see 99% of their productions at Stratford) but the staging was dreadful I’m afraid. None of the magic one could expect from this play was exploited. The lighting was harsh and unforgiving and I sat with a massive spotlight in my eyes for most of the time I was there. The stage was set with the sort of props (papier mache rocks??) that you expect in an amateur production. The glass tank/room in the corner of the stage muffled any dialogue from within it. Horrible.

  3. I read the negative comments above with great surprise. I look forward to seeing this production at the Roundhouse in London this coming June. Having myself worked very closely in 2008 with the RSC during it’s History season at the Roundhouse – when Michael Boyd was the artistic director – and seen many of the RSC productions – I have to say that nobody does Shakespeare better and Jonathan Slinger was a most impressive Richard III. I look forward to seeing his Prospero…

  4. We found a play in two very different halves – the first tedious, hard to hear (despite our good seats) and poorly acted – nowhere near what we had hoped for from RSC. Prospero was wholly unconvincing and the shipwrecked travellers just awful – and why on earth was Sebastian played by a woman?.The exceptions were the two sailors whose splendid comic playing rescued us from total despair.
    The second half was better, helped by the brilliant performance of Sandy Grieson as Ariel ( he would have made an excellent Prospero ), and some very imaginative stage direction and costumes .
    The evening as a whole was rescued by the play itself but it was an uphill struggle and RSC will have to improve their work greatly for us to bother making the trek again . It could have been any regional theatre group and not what is supposed to be one of the best companies anywhere..
    Why has the RSC seemingly given up on attracting top class actors, especially in a play like The Tempest where bravura performances are needed, and gone for low key ensemble type productions? If this is an example of the new approach – and it follows on from an equally uninspiring Macbeth last year – it just does not work. Theatre is not supposed to be democratic – it is meant to be memorable and moving.This performance was neither of those, but it was,sadly, all too easy to forget.

  5. Hi Brian,

    Thanks for the comment, I did find it memorable and moving.

    It does appear from your and others comments though that the cast are not “firing on all cylinders” for many of the performances which is a shame and as you say not expected.

  6. sadly a third very disappointed punter…I have to admit my heart sank when reading Brian’s apparently awful experience – I still have much faith – however, saying that, my very positive experience of the RSC was under the artistic direction of Michael Boyd. It is possible the company may have been going through a transition period in the past months leading up to the nomination of Greg Doran as the new artistic director. Furthermore, having seen most of my memorable RSC productions at the Roundhouse in London set up as the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford, it was somewhat a different experience when I actually went to the Courtyard Theatre – indeed the accoustics and ambiance were slightly less appealing to me. I recently saw Ralph Fiennes in The Tempest as part of the Trevor Nunn season at the Royal Haymarket…the RSC have much to live up to!…

    • I do not think there is any excuse for a “transitional period” at the RSC.This company has a great deal of subsidy and is obligated in it’s charter provide a consistently high standard of production and acting. The axe falls on the Artistic Director incoming or outgoing of the RSC for all it’s guest directors productions .

  7. so upset to see these comments, we are taking our son ( who is not a Shakespeare fan) and his partner this weekend, hoping to convert them . Hope someone is working on improvements!

  8. I was so looking forward to The Tempest my very favourite play by Shakespeare.The acoustics were terrible we were sitting middle back stalls.
    Miranda was speaking from her throat and screeched her lines.There was no sense of place or magic.The play only came alive during the comedy scenes.Ariel in a suit did not work for me.
    Theatre is a bit like following a football team and the RSC is having a very bad season at the moment.We are getting novelty for novelties sake and all romp and no substance.

  9. Hello
    I enjoyed your review of the RSC’s Tempest but I simply didn’t recognise the production from your glowing words!
    I’ve seen many different Shakespeare productions, but I’d never been to Stratford before, or seen The Tempest, so I was hoping for something magical.
    Alas, I was greatly disappointed and also left at the interval.

    Despite having good stalls seats about half way up – it was quite often difficult to hear -particularly Prospero. Whether this was because of his underprojecting style or just bad acoustics or lack of microphones at the RSC I couldn’t tell. A few people around me ( of varying ages!) were also complaining they couldn’t hear.

    On the other hand I found Miranda quite screechy – not fragile at all! Her voice seemed to be coming from her throat – and wasn’t the prettiest of sounds at times.
    The visiting actor playing Caliban had an accent so thick I couldn’t understand what he was saying for most of his performance.
    The shipwreck in a perspex box looked like something out of a workshop rehearsal and the grey drabness of the set and many of the costumes made it all rather depressing.
    I am not a Shakespeare ‘traditionalist’ and welcome modern interpretation, but, sadly, this ‘Tempest’ did nothing for me.

  10. Thanks for all the comments.

    Let me know what you and your son think K.

    Clearly work needs to be done by cast to make sure they can be heard, thankfully night I was there it was ok, but if people in the stalls are struggling it is not good.

  11. I took my grandson to see The Tempest on Saturday. I was so disappointed. I couldn’t hear Prospero, he gave a very poor performance. We had the best seats in the house. Two front circle £60 each and stayed at The Arden. What an expensive outing and so amateurish. The props were pathetic. He came from America to see Stratford aged 11. I cannot tell you how grumpy I felt. I would have walked out had it not been such a special outing. Miranda was ridiculous. The whole thing could have been done better in school. There are so many unemployed actors. I think they should pull their socks up.

  12. I so agree with many of the comments here. We took guests as a special treat, having in the past, had many entrancing and memorable evenings at the RSC. This was definitely NOT one of them. It was embarrassing. Where to start? Prospero, who has some of the most beautiful of Shakespeare’s poetic lines, mumbled his way through his speeches, looking and sounding like an unsuccessful insurance agent. No presence, no projection, no magic. Both he and Miranda need to take some voice lessons and learn that vocal colour is what brings the words to life and in that theatre it is necessary to project the voice or the audience can’t hear you. Yes, Ariel was excellent and so were Trinculo et al but what on earth was the designer on? We had modern dress, Tudor robes, fairies from local panto and cardboard rocks. Yes, I read the rationale in the programme but it was nonsense. There was no cohesion. The set, costumes and direction were all over the place. I have seen better school productions and for this I travelled hundreds of miles and spent hundreds of pounds!
    Get a grip RSC or you will lose faithful fans.

  13. We went on Monday. I have to agree with the reviews and having seen Comedy of Errors on Thursday, I felt the directing in both completely self indulgent. Along the lines of what devices, odd combinations of styles can I throw into this melting pot of a production! At times I felt was watching panto, as the strange over the top fairy descended from the ceiling and the very large one came out of the glass box below + Ariel as a bat with a bang. These were not eerie, supernatural well crafted beings, certainly not magical. We too felt it was very amateurish. Miranda was awful as was Ferdinand, no way could you believe he was in love, or had an emotional bone in his body – completely wooden. The King appallingly screechy. Prospero lost my attention in the first 5 minutes. Prospero did not exude the power or command the stage enough to make him a believable leader of a magical world. The whole 2 performances were only saved by the great comic timings and delivery of Mackinnon and Hayes. Kirsty Bushell’s delivery as Sebastian. ( but odd casting) They relieved tedium and the most oddest mismatch of costuming from varying periods cobbled together (not to mention the weirdest sado masochist dress and use of sparking jump leads in the C of Errors)
    Liked the glass box effect but it meant you couldn’t hear the words.
    All in all, apart from Bushell as Sebastian + M+ H, the diction and delivery of the play was extremely in distinct and just not good enough from the RSC. It was hard to sit an dlisten to, certianly meaning was totally lost at times. It was very amateurish and disjointed in so many aspects. Music was not as clever as it could have been to suggest magic either, discordant, odd. If you are going to use effects make them good.
    Best bit..the food disappearing in an explosion from the table, Ariel shooting down holes in the stage and the comic elements of Mackinnon and Hayes who were very funny. Rest Disappointing.

  14. Oh Dear, what a lack lustre performance is this! On entering the theatre, I was really impressed with the beautiful set, but upon taking our seats (not cheap in the stalls) it became apparant that we could not see much of the action. Prospero’s cell was obscured by a pillar, and the overhang of the circle blocked the view of anyone who acted on top of the cell – One of the ‘spirit’s during the wedding scene could not be seen at all.

    Ariel, although being a replica of Prospero came across as a psycho! He was really rather scary but he looked great as ‘the bat out of hell’! He, and several of the other cast members had such strong acents they could not be understood. Trinculo was quite amusing but the put on voice made every line inaudible. Caliban, who is supposed to be a monster, just looked like an unkempt Omid Djalili and his accent so thick he could not be understood. The one saving grace was Stephano who I could understand and who actually moved around the stage.

    Before I have seen ‘The Tempest’ performed with humour, emotion and power but this production had none of this. When Ariel is finally set free it is a heart wrenching moment, but with this production I couldn’t give a damn.

    There was just no pazzazz. I was looking forward to the shipwreck trilogy but have decided against booking any further tickets with this cast, In fact, this is the second RSC play I have seen this year and both have been the poorest productions I have seen in 30 years.

    • I agree with you–saw it last night (the 13th). No pizzazz is right. Although I enjoyed the Trinculo vey much–maybe he corrected his delivery by now. (he was hysterical!)
      (See my comments below (Brian D.)

  15. What a dreary bunch of negative comments! I enjoyed it. It may not be the greatest Tempest ever staged, and I grant that the Royal party were a little lacklustre, but there was much to please the eye and enrich the senses. Thought the set was great and the Propsero/Ariel pairing very strong. Nice to find that Michael Billington agrees with me!

  16. After reading the comments above (and previously seen what I thought to be an ‘over the top’ Twelfth Night) I was left wondering if I was going to enjoy The Tempest on Friday night…but need not have worried as the production was very enjoyable. Loved the shades of light and dark throughout the play echoed by the actors, scenery, staging and music. Highlights were the Prospero/Ariel contrast which worked really well due to the strengths of the actors, the portrayal of the spirit world was very effective and the comedic timing between Trinculo and Stephano was genuinely very funny. We sat in the side upper circle and heard most of the words…expensive stall seats are not the always the best ones!

  17. Can only think that the critics get the best seats in the house while the rest of us ( stalls or otherwise) are left straining our ears to hear!!!

  18. After reading the above comments I do feel slightly disappointed. I went to see The Tempest and found it very enjoyable and an interesting take on the traditional interpretation. David Farr was brave with the overall concept and pushed the limits of interpretation, but in a successful way. For me it really challenged the traditional beliefs of the play.

    The magic of the play had to be updated, it would be unfeasible and ridiculous to have ‘fairies’ and ‘magic dust’ representing the magic of the island, as for a 21st century audience I feel we would all find this quite patronising, Ariel, the Spirits and the portrayal of the Goddesses worked so well because it came across in a more sinister and haunting way. The modern, clinical lighting and set also reflected this.

    At times Johnathan Slinger’s delivery was quite muffled, but his overall presentation of Prospero was both tender and powerful and his interaction with Miranda was at times quite moving.

    I can only say that comparing the RSC version to the Theatre Royal Haymarket production I went to see late last year which starred Ralph Fiennes, that the RSC did it infinitely better. Before judging Slinger too harshly, you should have seen Fiennes yell his way through the performance with no emotional attachment at all and the director giving absolutely no thought as to the staging and presentation of the text, that version of The Tempest really was awful.

  19. I think your insight into Prospero being the mirror image of Ariel in a desire for freedom was an interesting insight–I can’t say I perceived that from the play, though, since if they were fellows, it would seem Prospero wouldn’t be ready to thrash Ariel at the drop of a hat. The Prospero reminded me of a Guy Pierce directed low-level organized crime thug–all menace and street smarts, but book smarts?–not so much. And in this play, if the Prospero doesn’t rub you the wrong way, well. . . The Gonzalo humorous bits were lost in the business attired straight playing. The Trinculo was spot on in comic timing, gesture, and every nuance. Stephano also good. What they intended with the buffoonish, ill-spoken (was that a Russian accent? Moldovian?) is hard to say–he gleaned neither sympathy nor contempt from me.

    The musical parts were great, the staging imaginative. But that Prospero. . .

  20. Well – I have just seen the Tempest today and I thought it was wonderful. I could hear everything – well the bit in the box was, I admit, a bit muffled, but apart from that I was enthralled with this imaginative production. I think its the best Tempest I have seen.


  21. Thank God I only read the Tempest reviews this morning, otherwise I may have never gone. Instead I was treated to one of the best presentations of my favorite Shakespeare play and I have seen few! Admittedly, the shipwreck start gave me a sinking feeling but once released from their ‘box’ the cast redeemed themselves admirably. Johnathan Slinger gave a moving ‘human’ performance as Prospero, the comedy routine with Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano which, in the past has made me cringe, had me laughing out loud but, without doubt, the finest performance for me was that of Sandy Grierson as Ariel. He gave an ethereal quality to the role, sang beautifully and interpreted the role as a spirit longing for freedom but indebted to his master for his release with an air of gentle frustration. I can only imagine the actors have honed their performances since the earlier reviews, I came away having seen one of the best interpretations of the Tempest. Well done the RSC!


  22. I have to agree with many of the comments posted with regard to the Tempest.. why make Sebastian a woman-poor delivery at times-the magic clumsy-the cube annoying,especially in the storm scene. However Ariel, I loved. At times moving like a puppet on invisible strings, his singing unearthly and heart breaking. Stroke of genius to make him a mirror image of Prospero who I warmed to as the play progressed. I liked the protrayal of him as a flawed angry human being who seemed at his wits end, desparate, if not for revenge then at least for an end to his torment and not the usual all controlling magician.

    Caliban I could accept even if he was sometimes difficult to understand. Stephano and Trinculo made me laugh. Miranda and Ferdinand made me sigh. It was not the best Tempest I have seen, nor the worst. I never buy a programme; I always want to be surprised and hopefully at Stratford to be amazed. Sadly this time puzzled and disappointed.

    Leaving at the interval I feel is an act of great arrogance and insult. In my many theatre going years I have always returned for the second half expectant and hopeful. Usually a second half is always better. And this time it was.

  23. Pingback: 2012 – Theatrical Highs (and one low point) | Theatre Thoughts Blog

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