Stage history

Photo shows the set of the 1951 RSC production © SBT

Performance history expert Rebecca Brown guides us through the stage history of The Tempest from the time Shakespeare wrote it to the present day.

Shakespeare's players
The Revels Account records that The Tempest was played before King James on 'Hallowmas nyght' (ie: 1 November) 1611: this is its first recorded performance. It had another court performance two years later as one of a number of plays laid on as part of the festivities marking the marriage of the Princess Elizabeth to Frederick, the Elector Palatine of Bohemia.

Shakespeare may well have written the play with an indoor playing space in mind because by the time The Tempest was written, the King's Men had begun to use the indoor Blackfriars Hall as a theatre. This was in addition to their long-established outdoor playhouse, the Globe. Fine costumes, varied music and the appropriate use of props and visual effects are required by this challenging play but the action would have moved forwards swiftly and fluently, unhindered by elaborate scene changes.

The Folio's opening stage direction requests: 'A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning'. Playhouses of the time were equipped with fireworks and thunder-sheets for such effects. If that was not enough, a cannon-ball could be rolled down a wooden trough to produce more thunder or a loose length of canvas be turned on a wheel to simulate the sound of high winds. 'Enter Mariners, wet', another direction later in the scene, indicates the simple effectiveness of Jacobean stage practice - one can imagine an enthusiastic stage-hand backstage, ready and armed with a brimming bucket!

An accomplished boy player in the company took the role of Miranda. It is highly likely that a gifted and musical boy player represented Ariel: after all, each of the roles in which Ariel is cast by Prospero are female.

Restoration additions

The Restoration theatre knew Shakespeare's play only in the adapted form given it in 1667 by William Davenant, with some additions by Dryden. The Tempest, or The Enchanted Isle retained less than a third of Shakespeare's text, introducing new characters to provide enough sentimental love interest to satisfy contemporary taste. Miranda and Caliban now have sisters and there is also a young man, Hippolito (always played by an actress in breeches), who has never seen a woman. It should come as no surprise that Hippolito and Dorinda, Miranda's sister, meet and fall in love. This obviously pleased contemporary audiences and later ones, too, since this love story continued to be included in stage versions of The Tempest right up until the nineteenth century.

Although Prospero's betrothal masque is cut, Davenant added a good deal more music and dance. Thomas Shadwell capitalised on this in his revision of the adapted text into operatic form in 1674. Shadwell's version, staged with elaborate scenic spectacle, was a huge hit, earning large amounts at the box office for the next 150 years or so.

In the seventeenth century, Ariel was played by a man, but from the early eighteenth century until the 1930s, the role was an exclusively female one.

David Garrick succeeded in drawing audiences to his production of a cut version of Shakespeare's play at Drury Lane in 1757, where it remained in the repertory for the next 20 years. However, Shadwell's spectacular musical numbers continued to exert their fascination and were reintroduced to Garrick's text by Sheridan in 1777.

Spectacular scenes

It was not until William Charles Macready's production at Covent Garden in 1838 that the Restoration additions to the text were finally banished. The opportunities for visual spectacle and complex, time-consuming staging continued to be exploited. The running time of Charles Kean's 1857 production at the Princess's Theatre, for example, was five hours, even though the text itself was heavily cut.

Typical examples of the spectacular delights conjured up for Victorian audiences are those in the final scenes of the play, in which Ariel was to be seen soaring off to freedom, while the restored Duke sailed away from the island.

Throughout the last third of the nineteenth century, the focus shifted onto Caliban, who was now presented as a more human creature whose soul struggles to get free of his brutish instincts. The actor-manager, Beerbohm Tree, took the role of Caliban in his production of the play at Her Majesty's Theatre in 1904 and gave the role great prominence. Tree rearranged the ending so that Caliban closed the play. He was seen creeping out of his cave as the ship bearing Prospero and his companions disappeared on the horizon. Crouched on a lonely rock, the creature stretched out his arms in mute despair before the final curtain triggered tumultuous applause.

Return to original staging

In 1897, the Elizabethan Stage Society, under the direction of William Poel, produced The Tempest in stage conditions corresponding closely to those of the original production. The aim of the Society was to return to the 'authenticity' of the Elizabethan thrust stage and swift, fluid stage action. Poel commissioned Arnold Dolmetsch, the founder of the early music movement in Britain, to arrange music from early sources to be played on authentic Renaissance-style instruments.

At the Old Vic in 1930, Harcourt Williams broke with tradition in casting a man as Ariel. The dancer, Leslie French, took the role, with Ralph Richardson as Caliban and John Gielgud as Prospero - the first of four portrayals by the actor in major productions of the last century.

Although women were still sometimes cast in the role after this production, it quickly became rare for Ariel to be played in the prettily obliging style that had become the custom throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Marius Goring, at the Old Vic in 1940, led the way with his remote, alien characterisation, indifferent to human affairs and longing only for freedom.

In his final appearance as Prospero, in Peter Hall's 1973 production at the National Theatre, John Gielgud was dressed to resemble Dr John Dee, the Elizabethan magus and astrologer to Queen Elizabeth. His interpretation was no serene, omniscient puppet-master, but 'a man who is contained and controlled. He can barely reveal himself to himself… [Gielgud] shows the agony that Prospero is going through from the very beginning of the play.' (Peter Hall's Diaries, ed. John Goodwin, 1983)

Reflecting politics

In 1970, at the Mermaid Theatre, Jonathan Miller's production interpreted the play from the perspective of colonialism. Two West Indian actors, Norman Beaton and Rudolph Walker, were cast as Ariel and Caliban. Ariel was an educated slave, planning to take control when the colonialists left, while Caliban was an uneducated field slave. In the brief moments between the departure of the Europeans and the final curtain, Ariel picked up Prospero's broken staff and pointed it menacingly at Caliban.

Declan Donnellan reflected contemporary politics in his production for Cheek By Jowl in 1988 when he replaced the King of Naples with Queen Alonsa, who bore an unmistakable resemblance to the current Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. At the beginning of the play, Antonio pushed the Boatswain out of the way and grabbed the imaginary wheel of the ship, only to be thrown to the ground by the force of the storm: he was forced to acknowledge that he was unable to control the power he had usurped.

In 1992, at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, Braham Murray's storm scene was played out in Prospero's book-lined study, with Prospero seated at his desk throughout. This study remained as the permanent set, neatly matching Prospero's former chosen isolation in his library in Milan with his current enforced imprisonment in his book-filled cell on the island.

The Tempest on film

John Gorrie directed the play in 1979 for the BBC TV series, with Michael Hordern as Prospero. In the same year, Derek Jarman directed a much freer and provocative interpretation on film, with Heathcote Williams in the lead role.

Productions of The Tempest in Stratford-upon-Avon from 1919 onwards »


Photo shows the set for the RSC production in 1951 © SBT
Written by Rebecca Brown © RSC

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