Watching Shakespeare being performed at the Globe Theatre is a treat without the magnificent talents of Roger Allam (Endeavour, The Thick of It) and the nimble acrobatics of his co-star, Colin Morgan (Merlin), but add them to the equation and you have a magical experience equal to the mythical powers of Prospero himself.
Treading in the hallowed footsteps of John Gielgud, Patrick Stewart and Vanessa Redgrave, Allam anchors this latest production as the troubled sorcerer, usurped as Duke of Milan by his devious brother Antonio and set adrift to land on a remote island with his three-year-old daughter, Miranda.
Twelve years on Prospero catches wind of his brother sailing nearby and raises an almighty tempest that shipwrecks their party. While the devious new duke and his accomplice, the King of Naples, are left stranded, Prospero commandeers the latter’s son as a potential suitor for his grown-up daughter.
Allam’s natural ease with Shakespeare’s language opens up boundless opportunities for his character. One minute the audience is treated to a tortured Prospero, quivering with the desire to avenge his wrongful deposal; the next he eases into familiar adoration and affection for his sole offspring Miranda (Jessie Buckley), engaging in a string of sarcastic exchanges which establish the strong but affable bond between the pair.
But while Buckley’s spirited Miranda is beginning to rebel against her father’s overbearing parenting style, Prospero’s playful spirit Ariel (Morgan) is never far from his side, carrying out his bidding and manipulating his defenceless subjects. For a bulky man, Morgan’s nymph-like movements are impressively acrobatic, as he silently gallops, creeps, swings, shimmies – and even cartwheels – across the stage with a camp, fidgety temperament that captures the ethereal essence of the production – not a million miles away from the eponymous hero he made his name playing in Merlin.
There is no doubt the Tempest’s star performers more than deliver on their credentials, but the play’s surprise success is Joshua James’s Ferdinand. Fresh out of Rada last year, the young actor marvellously transforms a one-dimensional romantic lead into a source of hilarity throughout the play. From his optimistically valiant attempts to defend his honour against Prospero, to his toothy grin of disbelief when he wins the heart of Miranda, James adds an Inbetweeners touch to his depiction of the hapless prince, scoring effortless laughs from the audience at every twist and turn.
And upping the entertainment value are bawdy drunkards Stephano (Sam Cox) and Trinculo (Trevor Fox) who have strayed from the shipwrecked party and befriended Prospero’s native slave, Caliban. The duo’s inebriated exchanges are delightfully set off by their haphazard stumbling across stage, taunting the standing audience with their increasingly exuberant gesticulations (special tip: avoid the front row…)
But while Shakespeare’s crafty one-liners are used to full effect by Cox and Fox, James Garnon’s Caliban never fully realises the potential of his character. Physically repulsive and riddled with bitterness at his enslavement, Prospero’s slave dominates the play’s sub-plot, but the scenes he shares with Stephano, Trinculo and his master he never owns. Instead of leveraging the audience’s sympathy or teasing out the absurdity of his hairbrained schemes, Garnon’s bizarre Jamaican accent and wild gesticulations rarely prompt laughs without the aid of his co-stars.
Although, what Caliban lacks in stage presence, he makes up for in dramatic effect, with his head-to-toe red and white body paint neatly complimenting the Globe’s bare set of occasional matching rocks presided over by the in-house band. The simplicity of the staging furnishes the actors with the freedom and space to build their characters and is a well-used instrument for Stephano and Trinculo’s drunken dramatics, not to mention Allam’s powerful soliloquys which are given the full attention they deserve.
And while the scenes featuring the shipwrecked aristocrats often bring a lull to proceedings, the production’s spirited interjections of fire, puppetry – and a crafty surprise from the theatre’s gallery – add a sometimes-needed spark to the multi-faceted plot. All in all, a simplisitc approach to Shakespeare’s bewitching yarn that relies on some masterful acting, especially from Allam, Morgan and James, to add colour to Shakespeare’s much-loved verse.
The Tempest runs at the Globe Theatre until August 18. Call 020 7401 9919 or visit www.shakespeareglobe.com for tickets.