’Tis heartening, and stirring too, to see Alex Kingston back at her alma mater – where she was a good and faithful company servant in the late 80s and early 90s, cutting her teeth as Cordelia, Hero and the country wench Jaquenetta in Love’s Labour’s Lost. She was (to gossip) in the ranks with Ralph Fiennes – later her first husband.
Entrusted with Prospero, she returns trailing televisual credits, not least having achieved household-name status in ER and beguiled a generation of Doctor Who viewers as the companion/wife River Song during the Steven Moffat years.
There’s a point of comparison with another famous RSC revenant Patrick Stewart, who brought a touch of the extra-terrestrial to Rupert Goold’s radically re-imagined Tempest in 2006 (all Arctic severity, no tropical idyll). But in contrast with Stewart’s growling command, as the sibling-ousted, island-stranded and grievance-nursing Duke of Milan, Kingston’s approach is oftentimes maternal and down-to-earth.
We see her first, crooning a lullaby before the storm and cradling the hint of a babe in arms. When she reveals herself, sporting a life-jacket like a regal mantle, she’s a make-do-and-mend single-mum contending with hardscrabble circumstances; she busies at a washing-line, and arranges bits of flotsam to help expound to her grown-up daughter Miranda (Jessica Rhodes) how the pair came to be cast away.
Director Elizabeth Freestone’s conceit (abetted by a sumptuous yet eco-friendly, no-frills design by Tom Piper that utilises theatrical cast-offs and recycled junk) is that this far-off land has been engulfed by modern detritus. Shakespeare seemingly grasped, presciently, the blighted destination of mercantilism and colonialism. We’re given a timely vision, then, of utopia scarred and yet restorable by unearthing our better natures.
A message, you could say, in a plastic bottle – but any obviousness is offset by scenes of spellbinding beauty, several coups de théâtre revealing Edenic vistas of unspoilt verdancy.
Some of the language has been altered to acknowledge the gender-flip (“mother”), some of it retained (“prince”, “master”). When the lead role is conventionally played, there’s an invitation to male rivalry in Ferdinand’s advances to Miranda. The parental urge to put the lad in his place blends fierceness and fun here. In a droll bout of control-freakery, Kingston blithely waves her wooden staff about, forcing Joseph Payne’s coy newcomer to buckle and bend (the last RSC Tempest in 2016 oozed high-tech marvels; this is all lo-fi rough magic).
If I have a reservation, it’s that Kingston could let greater storm-clouds gather and a louder emotional tempest of betrayal rage – she’s almost too serene, and sunny, at points, slotting into, rather than standing out from, the company.
But what an ensemble. This feels like one of the most confident, complete evenings Stratford has offered in ages. Whether it’s the spot-on lighting, the sound (inventively conjuring the opening storm), the movement (synchronised bobbing craftily denoting being all at sea, with entrances and exits of impossible fleetness), or those tricky sequences, from irksomely sloshed jesters to otherworldly masques, it’s all artistically water-tight, hellish puppetry brought into play too.
As for the final liberation of Prospero’s slaves, Tommy Sim’aan’s whip-scarred Caliban movingly utters his mother tongue for the first time, and Heledd Gwynn’s animated Welsh Ariel soars skywards, singing, leaving a cloud of dust to settle on Prospero’s contrite head: such stuff as dreams are made on.
Until March 4. Tickets: 01789 331111; rsc.org.uk