(Simon Russell Beale as a magnificent Prospero)
It is also interesting to read of the different productions through the centuries, and the way that the concerns of the time affect the interpretation and staging of the plays. Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree's 1904 adaptation is noteworthy, for example, not only because of his approach to Caliban but also because of how he dealt with the opportunity for special effects and his re-structuring of the play into three acts.
The truth is that if we're looking for anyone in "The Tempest", it shouldn't be Shakespeare, it should be ourselves.
And so we do. Shakespeare is clay that we mould to our own image, our tabula rasa on which we write the prejudices, the dreams, the prevailing fashions of thought. There is no interpretation so outlandish some director, or academic, has not thought of it. His canon is like the woodcutter’s magic purse and as soon as we have emptied it of all possible worth we look inside once more and find fresh coppers inside.
Perhaps it is that malleability that makes Shakespeare endure. That, and the majestic poetry that far outstrips the philosophy. Perhaps also we should not try so hard to make his plays deeper than they are.
The straight-forward simplicity of "The Tempest" is one of the reasons it is so popular and yet that very simplicity is one of the reasons why so much is read into it; far more than is warranted. Some of that is due to the adulation accorded Shakespeare, and the endless meanings and wisdom people find in his works. It is tempting to fall into that same trap and imagine that Shakespeare was thinking of his own body of work when he had "Hamlet" observe, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” But he wasn’t; no more than Prospero’s books in the pond are a metaphor for Shakespeare laying aside his quill.
"The Tempest" works because Shakespeare gave us a story with no pretences, no layers and no deep philosophy or political reflections, as he did in many of his other plays. "The Tempest" is a beautiful, lyrical fantasy, wonderfully told and imaginatively entertaining. The poetry is sublime without being abstruse or difficult. It is one of those great works of literature that draws meaning out of the audience rather than laying meaning upon them.
There is nothing wrong with it being a simple, beautiful tale. Stories are the stuff of life and dreams; stories delight us, help us make sense of our lives and our world and give form to our conscience.
The play has the barest bones of a plot and, apart from Caliban, very little character development. As Coleridge observed (in that speech mentioned by Sam and which is probably my favourite critical analysis of the play) part of Shakespeare’s genius was his ability to create full-formed characters and give them speech that was always consistent with their character and passages not always linear with sequential, responding dialogue but instead are potpourris of ideas and observations.
It is deliciously tempting to see Prospero as Shakespeare, at the twilight of his career, staging a glorious swan song but such interpretation doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, either of the play nor of Shakespeare’s life. The secret is in the final speech. This is a theatrical device often used by Shakespeare. The final speech in The Tempest is a celebration, not a farewell, a clever acknowledgment of the magic of the theatre to his audiences. It is also a rounding of the play, killing off audience concerns about the loose ends (of which there are a few) in which Shakespeare, always the wordsmith, cannot help but give two meanings to the word ‘globe’. There's enough beauty in that glorious epilogue not to have to imbue it with more than there is.
All one needs to do is to look at other plays of the time, whether by Shakespeare or others, and see that The Tempest lacks the complexity of plot evident in so many other plays (Lear, for instance, is quite complex and yet the plot itself is still self-evident to us.)
We know so much about the Elizabethan-Jacobean era, especially its politics and philosophy. Shakespeare's meaning has no more been eroded by time than have the tracts of Martin Luther, written almost a century before, or the poetry of Will's contemporary, Edmund Spenser. That we should feel the chasm of time to be an obscuring veil over the works of Shakespeare but not over those of Marlowe or Beaumont and Fletcher speaks of our uncertainties, not the play's.
Of course, there are different cultural sensibilities that change the play for us, be it what we find funny, or topical allusions that carry a different weight without immediacy, and even the pronunciation or meaning of words which makes or breaks Shakespeare's beloved puns. Even the fact that Shakespeare's audiences at The Globe watched by daylight and in the open alters slightly the nature of the relationship to the performance. But if we attach too much importance to that then we have to concede that there were two versions of the same play even in Shakespeare's day: one in a theatre such as the Globe and one in an indoor theatre, for the only recorded early performances were indoors. Some believe that the play was written specifically for indoor performance at the Blackfriars theatre rather than the Globe, in any case.
We don't need to be archaeologists to read and understand Shakespeare and appreciate it as he meant it to be appreciated. His plays aren't at all fossilised but have been discussed, tinkered with and generally kept alive and embedded in our consciousness since their birth.
I love the oratory of "The Tempest" which was so vividly granular you'd swear you could smell the lava loam on the island! But there were two dynamics that could be juiced up with SFX: 1) the royal fleet being thrown against the rocks of the island chain along the northern coast of Sicily by severe maritime winds and volcanic activity -- described perfectly by the sailors in Virgil's Aeneid and then again by Shakespeare's sailors, 2) and Prospero's odd-ball life of practicing alchemy in caves -- a poetic likeness of the tragic Francesco I de'Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany...
(Joe Dixon as an also wonderful Caliban)
The female sprite and Caliban being absolutely vital to those dynamics, and I hoped the RSC had gotten it right! Did Doran succeed? While in other plays this much use of technical wizardry might be an unhelpful distraction, it's obviously a boon to a production of "The Tempest", which is after all about an isle where nothing is as it seems and everything is magical. The projected backdrops were actually more awesome than the motion capture stuff, but that was pretty amazing too, and it didn't detract from the acting because on the whole the acting was incredibly powerful, especially Simon Russell Beale's Prospero, and there were many parts where it was also genuinely funny.
Finally, though, did Shakespeare write the play for the benefit of learned people who would pore over it again and again, finding subtle meanings and implications in its text? Or did he write it for those who would see it just once, and understand from just that one performance? That's the trouble with too much dissection. If the works says something it must say it plainly and in one telling. The audience didn't come back the next day and say, 'Hey, Will, can we just go over that bit between Prospero and Miranda when she first see Frederick? I think there was some dark under-current going on that I missed yesterday and it's kept me up all night.'
We can find anything we like in Shakespeare, and we have. It is a wonder that his plays have been able to withstand the burden of the nonsense written about them. It's what I mean about Shakespeare being our clay, form which every Pygmalion of a director and academic fashions their own Galatea.
This "Tempest" is an incredibly entertaining spectacle that also brings home the profundities of this particular production.
NB1: I didn't see the play live. I've used the recording that is already available.
NB2: All the pictures taken by me directly from the DVD.