A selection of RSC productions listed by year and director:
Rupert Goold (2006)
Goold's island was an Arctic wilderness with mariners in oilskins. The play opened with a shipping forecast and a gauze showing a radio. Through the radio's speaker, the audience glimpsed the last moments on-board before the shipwrecking. Projections of waves on moving curtains created atmospheric scene changes. Patrick Stewart's Prospero wore furs and had delicate tattooed patterns running across his head, inspired by traditional Inuit designs. Caliban (John Light) was a strong wild-man in shackles and Ariel (Julian Bleach) was a drifting black-robed figure with a ghostly white face. Ariel first appeared as a head emerging from a barrel in Prospero's log-cabin cell, and he later emerged from a whale carcass, dripping blood and bones.
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Michael Boyd (2002)
This production had a tough, austere quality with its raked, circular wooden platform and the makeshift costumes of Prospero and Miranda. Prospero's staff was the branch of a tree. The ferocity of Malcolm Storry's powerful Prospero softened by the end of the play to hard-won compassion. The simplicity of the staging allowed space for exciting physical action. The betrothal masque was played out on trapezes, and ropes tumbled from the roof for the nimble mariners to scramble up and down at the start of the play. The magical feast provided for the courtiers had an unplucked swan as its centrepiece. The savagery lying beneath the surface of the courtiers' civilised manners burst out as they fell on the food and devoured it like beasts. They began to tear apart the swan only to fall back in terror as Ariel in the guise of a harpy rose up from its entrails.
Adrian Noble (1998)
As he wrought his magic, David Calder's Prospero draped himself in the huge curtains descending from the roof. Coloured sky-blue and sea-green, and played on by shimmering light, these curtains seemed to be the natural elements themselves. One enormous seashell lay on the bare but beautifully lit stage. Prospero poked inside this shell with his magic staff to prise Caliban out from his cell. Wearing only a loincloth, with manacles on neck, wrists and ankles, this Caliban was caked all over in mud. Ariel, his counterpart in slavery, was also dressed only in a loincloth but without the manacles: his bare skin was covered in a white powder. A long runway extended out from the stage though the auditorium and it was along this, that Ariel ran in strange slow strides when he was finally given his freedom.
David Thacker (1995)
Simply designed for the Swan's thrust stage, this production emphasised the dominance of Paul Jesson's Prospero by his permanent presence on-stage seated at his desk with a large book open in front of him. Ariel, played by woman (Bonnie Engstrom), was a bird-like creature, decked out in the feathers and face-paint of a Native American Indian. She and her three or four fellow spirits were the logs carried by Ferdinand: they stood, stiff and unbending, as the unfortunate youth carried each laboriously from one side of the stage to the other. As soon as each had been deposited, each spirit ran back to its original place to await transport again.
Sam Mendes (1993)
Ariel was the dominant force in this interpretation of the play. He initiated the storm by climbing out of the large theatrical straw skip at the rear of the stage and setting the hurricane lamp, hanging above him, wildly swinging. He spoke and moved slowly and deliberately, maintaining a cold hauteur in all his dealings. There was still an audible gasp from the audience, however, when, in response to Prospero's affectionate words of farewell, he spat in his face. He then stalked away to the back wall of the set and opened a hitherto undetectable door through which he passed to freedom. Alec McCowan's gentle, school-teacherly Prospero was threatened not only by this unyielding spirit but also by an unusually rebellious Miranda and a terrifyingly muscular and sharp-taloned Caliban. Caliban's prison cell, from which he emerged for his first appearance, was that same theatrical skip on which Ariel had stood. He was forced back into it by Prospero at the end - there was to be no freedom for him. The production's theatrical self-consciousness was evident in the presentation of the masque. Here it was a delightful, life-sized pop-up theatre, with the goddesses played as stiff-limbed mannequins.
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Nicholas Hytner (1988)
A steeply raked, shining white disc served as the stage floor, in the centre of which was the opening down to Prospero's cell. It was as though he lived in the heart of a great white shell. One such huge seashell lay in front of the brilliant blue cyclorama encompassing the rear of the stage. A barnacle-encrusted, lichen-freckled rock lay near Prospero and Miranda throughout their first long conversation. It was only when Prospero summoned Caliban that the rock moved and proved to be Caliban. Prospero's staff was a beautifully shaped piece of driftwood that stood magically still and erect when it was not in use.
Ron Daniels (1982)
Derek Jacobi presented a vital and thrilling Prospero, who was only just on the brink of middle age. He was caught in an anguished internal struggle with his emotions, motives and desires. He was not fully in control of himself, let alone the action of the play. His magic garment was that of a Renaissance magus, decorated with occult signs, and his finely-fashioned magic staff was topped with a pointing hand. The betrothal masque took place beneath a beautiful crown-like canopy of golden leaves. The set itself was that of the ruined ship on which Prospero and his daughter had arrived on the island 12 years before. This set, with appropriate lighting, doubled for the storm-tossed ship in the play's opening scene.
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Clifford Williams (1978)
Michael Hordern's elderly, benevolent Prospero presided over the bare lunar landscape of this island, with its darkly shining rocks and reflective floor. David Suchet's Caliban wore only a pair of cut-off breeches and his shining, pewter-coloured skin made him appear a strange creature of the earth. His posture was a permanent crouch and his slightly stilted speech was a constant reminder that language did not come naturally to him.
Peter Brook (1957)
John Gielgud played an obsessive, brooding Prospero in this dark interpretation of the play. The design's gloomy caves, overgrown with tangles of foliage and creepers, seemed a manifestation of Prospero's inner world.
William Bridges-Adams (1919)
Inspired by the work of William Poel, Bridges-Adams directed a swift and simply staged production. He was fascinated by the idea that one of the play's early performances had been as a celebration for a royal wedding. He took pains to recreate in his staging something of the effect of a Jacobean court masque and used a gauze curtain on which were depicted the portraits of the royal bridal pair, the Princess Elizabeth and the Elector Palatine.
A full list of RSC productions with details of cast and production team can be found in the RSC Performance Database on the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust website.
Written by Rebecca Brown and Suzanne Worthington © RSC
Photo by Angus McBean shows Ariel (Alan Badel, left) and Prospero (Michael Redgrave, right) in the RSC's 1951 production of The Tempest © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust