The Rose Theatre is tucked away on a side street paralleling the south bank of the Thames, the entry door practically hidden under Southwark Bridge. The site was home to “the first Elizabethan theatre on Bankside” and witnessed early productions of “Shakespeare...Marlowe, Kyd and Fletcher.” But now a short walk away stands its more famous reconstructed (and far better funded) cousin, the Globe Theatre. The Rose, by contrast, appears to be operating with a dedicated skeleton crew, one that remains committed to seeing the space become an active participant in the theatrical arena. Though the Rose faces major challenges, including finding funding to complete its archaeological excavation (~£4 million or ~$6.5 million), it is currently trading on its singular and towering characteristic: atmosphere.
The Tempest at the Rose, directed by David Pearce, relies heavily on the site’s contrast between its expansive size and its intimate staging area, deriving its atmosphere intrinsically from what the place is. In other words, there are some performance elements that can only occur in the water-covered archaeological dig of an Elizabethan playhouse. Because the shallow stage—only ten or fifteen feet deep—buttresses the dig, which extends an indeterminate length (one cannot quite tell where it ends in the dark), the actors are able to speak in muted tones, their voices carrying and amplifying over the water, generating a heightened but intimate sound. For The Tempest, the Rose becomes Prospero’s island, and with its dampened, cave-like feel we sense we are indeed close to Prospero’s cell.
The titular tempest is a loud affair, with most of the opening lines lost amid the sound and fury of storm sounds. A projection screen to the right of the audience carries an image of a raging sea. During the course of the tempest, a mop, bottles, a book, and a cloak among other items are tossed on stage (some of the objects become props during later scenes). When the storm finishes, and the focus of the action switches to Prospero and Miranda, a sudden quiet descends. The projection screen changes to a view of a stream in a wood. As Prospero (Robert Carretta) begins to speak and recount the bitter blood between him and his brother, the tone of the performance shifts to one of utter calm, as still as the waters covering what was once a noisy playhouse. Carretta’s voice fits perfectly with the mood, possessing a dark and mysterious tenor, rarely modulating. Suzanne Marie as Prospero’s daughter Miranda (from the program notes: “[Carretta] earlier this year play[ed] Macbeth...to Lady Macbeth who is now reincarnated as his daughter in this production of The Tempest, confusingly.”) is more lively, and her amazement at setting eyes upon Ferdinand (played with honesty by Thomas Thoroe) rings true.
A lackadaisical quality pervades most of the performances, as if the atmospheric effect were all, but at the expense of genuine emotional connection. The production tends to speak through the verse while failing to emphasize believable, engaging relationships (Miranda/Ferdinand excepted). The meeting of Prospero and Alonso (Gareth Pilkington), for instance, is handled as if Alonso had done no more than failed to yield his seat on the Tube. But while the performances lean toward the lazy, they are never permitted to draw out for too long, since the production itself is a brisk ninety minutes with no interval. The heavy cutting tends to displace the Miranda-Ferdinand and Prospero-Alonso-Antonio story lines in favor of attention to the Trinculo-Stephano-Caliban triangle. The shift in focus has the strange, but not unpleasing, effect of pushing the action into something akin to absurdist farce. Damian Dudkiewicz as Caliban shows physical skill (he has training in mime and physical theatre), moving nimbly on his feet and fists and creating a character defined by a subservient spatial position. His interactions with the perpetually drunk Stephano (Richard Ward, in a humorous turn playing Gonzalo, Stephano, and the Boatswain, all of whom appear in the final scene) highlight what seem modern concerns about the roles of the colonizer and the colonized.
It is the Rose Theatre—its atmosphere of eerie incompleteness—which lends itself to this production of The Tempest. One feels one has wandered, truly, into a space “rich and strange.”