Choreographer: David Bintley
Reviewer: Helen Tope
Written against a backdrop of social and political upheaval, Shakespeare’s The Tempest made its debut by Royal appointment. Performed to an audience including King James I, The Tempest is markedly different to Shakespeare’s earlier comedies, certainly when compared to such plays as the exuberant Twelfth Night. First performed in 1611, it moves purposefully through darkness and light.
The Tempest is very much written to speak to Jacobean sensibilities. It tells a story of betrayal, savagery and revenge – perfect for an audience still waiting to see how King James’ reign would pan out. The story is one of Shakespeare’s trademark plots – complex and densely-packed, only coming together at the last minute.
The play begins with a crisis – a ship is caught in a storm, leaving its passengers to abandon it and seek refuge on a nearby island. But the storm is no force of nature, but rather sleight of hand. Orchestrated by Prospero (formerly the Duke of Milan), he recognises the ship as belonging to his estranged brother, Antonio. Prospero, along with his daughter Miranda, are on the island thanks to a plot to relieve Prospero of his dukedom, with Antonio taking the title for himself (with a little help from Alonso, the King of Naples). On seeing the ship, Prospero takes his revenge, bringing not only Antonio and Alonso to his island, but Ferdinand, Alonso’s son.
The plot widens out beyond a tale of revenge, encompassing magic, divinity and the blossoming of first love. There’s no doubt that The Tempest packs a lot in (and indeed, asks a great deal of its performers), but by switching from words to movement, Birmingham Royal Ballet articulates Shakespeare’s themes with clarity and grace.
In watching The Tempest, it is remarkable to see just how easily Shakespeare translates to dance. David Bintley’s choreography is deeply intuitive; moulding itself to the characters like a second skin. Caliban (a standout performance from Tyrone Singleton) prowls across the stage, brimming with rage and resentment. The scenes between Miranda (Jenna Roberts) and Ferdinand (Joseph Caley) are sweetly lyrical; while the comic relief, courtesy of Trinculo (James Barton) and Stephano (Valentin Olovyannikov), is bawdy, rambunctious and totally authentic.
It’s the authenticity that serves this production so well: Birmingham Royal Ballet have understood that the world of The Tempest turns not on revenge, but redemption. Prospero’s reconciliation – with his daughter, his brother and even himself – is so beautifully realised, you forget no-one has even spoken a word.
Music plays a crucial part in any ballet, and Sally Beamish’s score (written especially for this production) is dynamic, witty and playful. Beamish pays homage to the great ballet composers, with echoes of Stravinsky’s The Firebird melting into the full-bodied, orchestral scores of the Romantic period. That’s the thing with Shakespeare – his writing is so eclectic, that anything goes.
An ability to embrace the extraordinary is crucial for a play like The Tempest, and this production from Birmingham Royal Ballet throws caution to the wind. No detail is underplayed. Every aspect of this ballet, from the costumes to the set design, is bigger, bolder and better. It’s how Shakespeare should be done, and it’s simply sensational.
Runs until 29 October 2016 | Image: Bill Cooper