There may not be agreement as to whether The Tempest (1611) represents William Shakespeare's final statement — Henry VIII may have followed it, and John Fletcher's The Two Noble Kinsmen may have been co-written with Shakespeare — but few can argue that the play is some sort of valedictory. Within its dark, magical terrain lies a summation of Shakespeare's concerns, written with the simplicity attainable only by a master dramatist at the height of his powers.
Like its predecessor The Winter's Tale, The Tempest is a comedy of bitterness and, as with that play, its leading character is in many ways a rather unsympathetic one. Prospero, whose exile has stranded him and his daughter Miranda on an island (presumably in the Bahamians), is besotted with the notion of revenge. He quite literally lords it over both Miranda and the island's otherworldly inhabitants, the spirit Ariel and the misshapen witch-bastard Caliban. Using the magical powers acquired during his years of banishment, he causes the shipwreck of his usurping relatives with an eye to vengeance.
Or does he? It is possible to read in Prospero's means and methods a more complex intention. As Leontes in The Winter's Tale must be shamed before he can be forgiven, so too are Prospero's enemies divided from one another, confused, and allowed (if not encouraged) to foment plot and counter-plot before the redemptive climax. Yet Prospero's own redemption late in the play, his desire for revenge canceled out by the embrace of forgiveness toward those who have wronged him, seems to argue against that interpretation. That The Tempest can support (or at least encourage) both notions is testament to the mind of its author — at once disarmingly simple and masterfully complex.
While the magical elements in this late masterwork naturally lend approval to lush staging, the March 21st and 22nd production by Actors from the London Stage in Reynolds Theatre on Duke's West Campus, sponsored by the Duke University Institute of the Arts, in keeping with the company's mission, gave us The Tempest neat. Stripped of elaborate set design, the play more than retained its enchantment: the lack of physical distractions concentrated the mind, allowing us to connect with the characters on a more immediate level and to fix our attention on the language.
As Ian McKellan reminded us in his solo show a few years back: "Always there will be actors on a bare stage, acting Shakespeare." By use of a few minimal props and costumes — Prospero's cape and staff, which doubled as a ship's sail and a rack of clothing; some bottles; a hand-held instrument for suggesting the tempest's winds — the five performers (one woman, four men) who make up AFTLS return us to that ideal. An archetype moreover, whose enchantments endless dollars and bolts of cloth can never approximate.
Terence Wilton essayed both Prospero and his perfidious brother Antonio with extraordinary richness and elan. There was a touch of Richard Burton's Welsh musicality in Wilton's timbre, tone, and emphases as Prospero. (I do not mean that the actor's performance was in any way imitative, merely that his choices caused me to consider what a great Prospero was lost in Burton.) Wilton clarified Prospero's agonies as well as hinting at the Duke's colonialist indifference and cruelty toward Ariel and Caliban, making him at once threatening and pitiable.
Caroline Devlin served up equal portions of mischief and gravitas as Ariel; and her Miranda was, to quote Prospero in another context, such stuff as dreams are made on. In an under-skilled performance the Duke's daughter can tremble on the edge of nothingness: dutiful daughter, besotted lover, and a convenient means by which Prospero can divulge exposition to the audience. But Devlin's grace and nuance made her Miranda as believably human as her Ariel was sprightly.
Paul Moriarty's Caliban emphasized the humorous over the pitiable, and wasn't helped by the insensitivity displayed by much of the audience toward his anguish. He faired far better as the generous Gonzalo, fully justifying Prospero's own fond memory. Guy Burgess had three important roles, each utterly distinct and memorable. Edward Peel was masterly in his portrayal of the conniving Alonso and in the best English musical-hall tradition of wise buffoonery as the inebriated butler Stephano.
As Prospero's usurping brother Sebastian, the protean Burgess was villainy defined; his drunken jester Trinculo a bibulous delight; and his Ferdinand a most suitable swain for Miranda. This is no mean feat, as Ferdinand risks being something of a lox at worst, a romantic symbol at best. Yet Burgess and Devlin made their love scenes spellbinding; she by convincing us that Miranda has indeed fallen in love at first sight and he by matching this with beautifully underplayed ardor.
To thieve a final line from The Tempest's Bard, "O brave new world/That has such players in't!"