Julian Bleach as Ariel in the RSC's The Tempest
Some of the most interpretive and experimental films of Shakespeare’s plays have been made of, or using the inspiration of his “final” play, The Tempest. In Derek Jarmon’s The Tempest, the play occurs in Prospero’s dreams; Peter Greenway’s Prospero’s Books, has the entire play is voiced by John Gielgud as Prospero, the story told by his magical books and powers.
And yet, it is rare to find a production of it in the theatre that strays far from the Shakespeare text, and many recent ones, such as The Crucible’s 2002 production starring Derek Jacobi as Prospero and Daniel Evans as Ariel, have stuck to the basic formula of the setting and character portrayal, especially of Prospero and Ariel; Prospero is a strong, majestic wizard, powerful, fearful and yet generally in the right. Ariel is the flighty spirit, ambiguous perhaps in gender, but loyal, dutiful and compassionate; a mature Puck from Shakespeare’s earlier magical romance, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
With all these preconceptions, it is easy to be dulled into a sense of security when entering the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to see the new production of this well loved play, part of the Complete Works festival in Stratford this year. However, as with all the most predictable expectations, they are quickly, and joyfully, dashed to pieces from the opening scene of the play, and are no less than turned on their head when the “spirit” of Ariel first enters, played masterfully by Julian Bleach, who shamelessly steals the show from even Patrick Stewart’s incredibly human and almost vulnerable Prospero.
Bleach, one of the founders of the award winning company, Shockheaded Peter, a performance of clowns and insane beings, with surreal music and sequences that evoke David Lynch’s unforgettable style, has recently acted in Terry Gilliam’s film, “The Brother’s Grimm”, and appears to have a startling ability to portray figures of mystery and intrigue with a sensitive mix of comedy, ambiguity, emotion and horror, culminating his talents in his masterful interpretation of Shakespeare’s notoriously difficult to stage spirit, Ariel.
He looks and acts as the archetypal Nosferatu, the ultimate vampire, imprisoned forever in his human body, a prison that must be to him, a being of fire and air, distasteful and unbearably confining. Bleach portrays this wonderfully through his awkward stance, holding himself permanently at an angle, his shoulders hunched and his arms, almost glued to his sides. His walk, slow and protracted, often taking up to five minutes to cross the stage, spoke volumes of a “spirit” confined, a being unable to adjust to the human form, unsure of how to work it, and in constant discomfort because of his material form.
Beach’s floor length, starched black jacket sat on him like a priest’s cassock, covering him almost completely, yet with enough starkness that the audience was left with the same awkwardness as if he had been wandering the stage naked, a body with a feeble physical appearance, but every centimetre of it scarred by the “spirit of the isle” fighting to escape it’s prison. His upright chalk – dusted hair and large, black eyes only intensified the image of a being terrified by himself and unable to come to terms with the ultimate insult and distaste of being human.
However, arguably, Bleach’s appearance could be passed off as unusual for Ariel, but nothing more. Or at least, it could be, if it weren’t for his voice; his elevation of it to something that sounds permanently ethereal, and his slow pronunciation of the words, his deliberate delivery of his lines, not to mention his eerie, high pitched singing, adds a whole new dimension to both the audience’s perception of his character, and the contextual issues that arise due to this interpretation of the character. It adds crucially to the air of mystery around Ariel, and makes his sinister appearance all the more memorable – it could almost be said, haunting – as his voice delivering the centuries’ old lines remains ringing in the ears of the audience long after the performance has ended.
However, this presentation of Ariel has a deeper contextual meaning, as it likens Ariel to the character of Caliban, something foreign and native to the island, adding a dimension to his character that is usually ignored as belonging to Caliban only.
With his awkward movement, his slanted speech and otherworldly accent, he become as much a foreign being as Caliban, albeit as more as something mysterious than monstrous. He does however; share the same disfiguring bodily qualities, the same linguistic difficulties that apparently, according to Prospero and Miranda, make Caliban a “creature of darkness”, a monster, a native of the island, which they have colonised.
The sympathy that is inevitably evoked for Ariel in this production, despite his strange behaviour, suggests a much more modern attitude to colonialism, as it is impossible not to feel the irony of Prospero talking of he freed Ariel from the tree in which Sycorax imprisoned him (possibly another reason for his awkward movements and difficult posture), only to “imprison” him once more into this enforced slavery, and the restricting human body.
The constraint Ariel feels due to this is outlined for the audience clearly and movingly in Bleach’s delivery of the line in response to Prospero’s enquiries of the state of his brother and Alonso, King of Naples and his companions, when he says only “…if you beheld them your affections | would become tender… mine would sir, were I human” (Act 5, Sc. I). Following this speech is the longest pause for the entire production, as Prospero digests the hugeness of the slavery and imprisonment that he has inflicted on this, supposedly, free spirit, and by the end of the same scene, he has set him free.
There is tenderness in Prospero’s farewell to Ariel that leaves the audience teary-eyed and with a deeper understanding of the relationship between the pair that is usually portrayed in other productions.
Stewart’s delivery of the line, “I shall miss thee” is one of the most memorable pieces of theatre that has ever been performed, and the look given in return from Ariel as he moves slowly off the stage is one of such complete relief and gratitude, that as, for the first time Bleach’s shoulder’s relax, the audience can almost see the spirit flee, at last, it’s mortal constraints.
The stark landscape can be seen, along with the characterisations of both Ariel and Caliban, in this production, as projections of the darkness and bleakness that resides inside Prospero, especially inside this very human and venerable characterisation by Stewart, and this is emphasised by Bleach and John Light as Caliban, both as creatures so clearly “of the isle”, creatures imprisoned by Prospero, and to all intents and purposes beings “created” by Prospero himself into beings that suited his needs.
However, this setting, although refreshing due it’s difference to the majority of productions of The Tempest, is only really effective if the audience has a good understanding of the play as it is usual presented, therefore able to understand the irony and cynicism behind lines such as Gonzalo’s “How lush and lusty the grass looks! How green!” as well as Ariel’s references to his “speedy” and “flighty” movement, as he moves as slow as a snail across the stage.
The ultimate drama of this production is undeniably in the scene before the interval when Ariel emerges from a giant seal to deliver his judgement speech upon the Lords of Naples and Milan. Bleach is masterful in this piece of drama, delivering a chilling speech and a horrifying punishment, and the sheer skill and vision behind the scene leaves the audience speechless.
However, it cannot be wondered that this scene also catalyses the main problem with this production – that it is perhaps different simply for the sake of being different at times, for what other reason could there be for Ariel to appear from the stomach of a dead seal?
But, these are petty concerns when measured against the skill of the directorial vision, and in particular to the skill of performance seen in Julian Bleach’s Ariel, bringing to life this ambiguous character that would leave even Shakespeare himself baffled, amazed, and in complete awe of this wonderful actor’s genius.