You don’t notice him at first. The stage is open, set in a ramshackle garden behind York Library, surrounded by Roman ruins and picnic blankets. It’s light, early evening in the summer, that moment before the curtain comes up mixed with the moment before the sun goes down. Unobtrusively, a man sits down on one of the mini-stages, engrossed in a book. He’s tall, middle-aged, well-dressed and completely focussed. He looks like us. He’s sitting where we are. The stage is empty.
Then, satisfied, he walks on stage, holds the book up high and slams it shut.
And in the middle of York, in the middle of Summer, reality shifts.
A storm breaks and suddenly we’re on the deck of a ship filled with grim sailors and terrified noblemen. The man with the book is there too, invisible to the other characters, an audience member somehow on stage, an author somehow within his own story. This is The Tempest, a play where audience members and characters, where author and story and reality and fantasy mix to dizzying effect, presented in York Library Gardens by Sprite Productions.
Roger Ringrose’s Prospero is the author idealised, a muscular, vigorous intellect who throws himself around the stage with tremendous intensity and more than a little flamboyance. Prospero is, on paper, a tragic hero of the sort Shakespeare loved; a man left to die by his brother, forced to survive on a desolate island and exiled for over a decade whilst he plotted his revenge. He is, on paper, a Hamlet rather than a Claudius, the victim of a story instead of a protagonist.
However, that very exile empowers him. Prospero is thrown outside the story, runs off the edge of the film like Yosemite Sam but instead of plummeting to the ground, finds out he can influence the story from his place beyond it. His books may be supplied by Gonzalo but the knowledge, the will to build his liberation comes from Prospero alone. He becomes, within minutes of the play opening, a contemporary of Faust, a man who not only knows his place but knows how to make it better and knows the price he will pay for that. He is the first enlightened scientist of English literature, the tree whose roots still run through modern fiction and incorporate everything from Bernard Quatermass to Sherlock Holmes.
He is of course, also Nigel Kneale and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. Prospero is outside the book looking in, an author up to his elbows in the organs of his story, present in almost every scene and frantically assembling events to produce the ending he wants.
This makes for some fascinating structural choices in The Tempest. The play is amongst Shakespeare’s most broken backed with the second half little more than an extended series of resolutions as Prospero first gives his blessing to the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand, then foils the half-baked assassination plot of Trinculo, Stefano and Caliban and finally, almost as an after thought, brings his enemies forth, renders them powerless and then forgives them. Were the play not so redolent with some of Shakespeare’s best language it would feel anti-climactic. Instead, it feels new, clean, almost elegant. This is an author at the end of his life no longer content to build the same story with the same tools but, instead, wanting to comment on that story and explore how it has changed and how he in turn changes it. It is, in short, arguably the first post-modern play ever written.
Prospero is not the only character to transcend narrative however. This production features an Ariel who is simultaneously both resolutely physical and completely incorporeal. This Ariel is played by every member of the cast not on stage and occupied with other roles, a hive mind that is simultaneously individual and united, picking up each other’s sentences, finishing each other’s lines and throwing questions at Prospero from every angle. This is Ariel as a breeze, an idea, a concept given temporary voice and it’s an approach so elemental, so incredibly effective that it’s difficult to understand why every production doesn’t use it. Of course, the one character who never forms part of Ariel is Prospero. The author’s role in the story is inviolate, intimate but distant, involved but apart and whilst he can control a chorus of voices, he can never be part of it directly.
Ranged against these two, the rest of the cast seem almost perfunctory. Miranda in particular is one of the least of Shakespeare’s heroines, a woman required to do little more than love her father, fall in love with Ferdinand and deliver the ‘O brave new world!’ joke. Likewise the pairings of Sebastian and Antonio, Trinculo and Stefano are essayed villains at best, men separated by class but united by blank, unthinking avarice. Here, once again, the cast are used in a manner which is both efficient and clever, Sebastian and Trinculo both played by Phillip Benjamin, Alonso the duke of Naples and Stefano both played by Jacob Krichefski. The rich and the poor alike in every, lost on an island writing itself into existence around them.
Which isn’t to say the company don’t do an excellent job, because they do. This is one of the most uniformly strong companies of actors I’ve seen in years with Benjamin in particular showing a neat ability to shift between the embittered Bertie Wooster of Sebastian and the affable and casually violent, cockney Trinculo. Krichefski is also extremely impressive, bringing a wounded, resigned dignity to Alonso and playing Stephano as a jovial, sinister, cowardly stand up comedian, boasting about murdering Prospero one moment and swapping hats with an audience member to avoid being identified the next. Jack Whitam’s Caliban is a gangly figure, uncoordinated and unfocussed and all the more sympathetic for that whilst Tony Taylor’s Gonzalo is arguably the greatest of Shakespeare’s councillors, a man who is quietly compassionate, ruthlessly intelligent and completely honest about his failings. Each one of them and the rest bring something unique to the role or roles they play, from Stephanie Thomas’ intensity as part of Ariel to David Hartley’s compassionate, open Ferdinand.
However, each of them is in the end nothing more than a phrase in Prospero’s book, a component to propel the story to it’s conclusion. This is a play about a man using the tools of narrative to bring his own story back on course, seizing back control of the life that’s been taken from him and he does so with a ruthlessness that often isn’t communicated. Trinculo, Caliban and Stephano are last seen pursued by dog and wolf spirits, Ferdinand is put through arduous physical labour to prove his worthiness to Miranda and the play finishes with Gonzalo, Alonso, Sebastian and Antonio completely at Prospero’s mercy. They are saved not just by Prospero’s mercy but by the fact that any other ending would be untidy. Things must return to normal must, if anything, be better than normal and the only way that can be achieved is if Prospero is reinstated as Duke of Milan and Ferdinand and Miranda marry, cementing his alliance with Alonso. Everything that happens along the way from the way he toys with Alonso’s grief to the enslavement of both Ariel and Caliban drives that purpose, and with it the story, forwards; Prospero must be returned to the book, he must finish his story and that story must have a happy ending.
But can you return to the book after you’ve been outside it? Prospero’s closing speech suggests otherwise, suggests instead that he knows all too well the crimes he has committed and that the price he will pay for them, is knowledge of them. As the play closes, again with Ringrose alone on stage, it seems clear that he will never be fully part of it again. The actor, the character, the author all leave the stage as one, the story they have worked so hard to build finished and receding and, somehow, doing so without them. Prospero’s books, it seems, imprison as much as they empower.