Review for "The Tempest"
from The Spectator, 19th June 1959

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At the Old Vic, under the new policy of casting a wider net, they have come upwith the interesting idea of reviving The Tempest In the Dryden-Davenant version of 1667, with Purcell's music. This needs to be considered in context : written at a time when Dryden had just become a contract writer for the King's theatre, it is conceived as an opera, which to him meant 'a potential tale, or fiction, represented by vocal and instrumental music, adorned with scenes, machines and dancing.' With The Tempest this involved 'the fable of it all spoken and acted by the best of the Comedians; the other part of the entertainment to be performed by the singers and dancers.'

And so poor Mr. Vari's play becomes a tug-of-war between these two ill-matched champions, with a supporting cast directed by William Chappell as if the whole thing were being done by ENSA in the open air in the middle of an air- raid; and this amplification goes to underline the fact that the piece itself is just not witty or dramatic or charming enough. Perhaps in a more muted production, and with somebody more icy, more truly grande dame than Miss Mount, it might have seemed different, but as sentimental farce the effect is too often dull and embarrassing. The two ladies have their occasional moments of glory, but It is really asking too much to expect them to coo convincingly over a cradle placed by the footlights while baby noises emerge from backstage. At first, I wondered whether Miss Rutherford was Moreover, Dryden cheerfully set about re-writing Shakespeare (he said he never worked at anything with more delight); being at that time under the influence of the tidier French drama, he intro- duced some symmetry in the shape of sisters for Miranda and Caliban, and a counterpart for Ferdinand; he contrived a neater, less complicated narrative, and made ample allowance for the 'machines' which he knew to be the main attraction for his public, theatre-starved after two years of closure.

Even now, one could make out a case for Dryden improving upon Shakespeare. This Tempest makes much more sense than the original. Continually we see Dryden asking Shakespeare rational questions about points of plot or character —does not Prospero, for instance, feel any pity for those he tortures?—and because this is the kind of thing that puzzles us no less than him, it is satisfying to find him putting the question in somebody's mouth and obtaining a good enough answer. The play has become quite consistent and plausible; all that we have lost is most of the poetry, the revelation of a great mind near the end of its life, the genius. Dryden's Shakespeare is commonly called a perversion; it is in fact a reduction.

I would like to be able to salute more than the Vic's enterprise, but am bound to say I found the experience a beautiful bore. No fault of the com- pany : Douglas Seale has produced brilliantly in Finlay James's conch-shell settings; the musical interludes are truly operatic, except that we can actually make out the words; Miles Malleson is on hand as Trinculo, working the old familiar collywobble charm as hard as ever; there is a pleasant, distinctive-voiced newcomer, Christine Finn, as the Dryden-invented Hippolito; and Joss Ackland's Caliban is a splendidly blab and bloated lizard, another Oxford man gone wrong. Everyone, indeed, works hard and well, and if the overall effect is bloodless, the fault is with Dryden and Davenant; in particular Prospero exemplifies the way Shakespeare's creation in depth is turned into a one-dimension, flat-wash, strip-cartoon character. Perhaps, too, our modern convention of the well-behaved audience is wrong in an enter- tainment clearly designed for a more turbulent crowd, coming and going. As a collector's piece, it is obviously worth a visit, but for this occasion the Old Vic tradition of visits from schools might be discouraged, for I can only think that this would put children off both Shakespeare and Dryden, though they might like the 'machines.'

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