THEATRE / Between the lines

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The Independent Culture
'Our revels now are ended: these our actors, / As I foretold you, were all spirits, and / Are melted into air, into thin air.' (The Tempest)

I always feel that between these lines lurks a Shakesperian critique of mechanical stage effects. They occur just after the goddesses, nymphs and reapers and all the furniture of the magical Masque 'with a strange, hollow and confused noise, heavily vanish'. Even in 1993, this Masque is difficult to bring off effectively. In 1611 Shakespeare must have sighed in frustration as he saw how inadequate were the physical means at his disposal to produce the kind of magical phenomenon that could 'amaze' Ferdinand and Miranda, and the audience. 'All right, then listen to this,' he seems to be saying. 'Here's some magic that works.' And there follows that haunting passage about 'the cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces'. In a few lines Shakespeare develops his explanation of the 'insubstantial pageant', through a dark apprehension of the ephemerality of the theatre, into an exhausted acceptance of decay. It's an immensely difficult play, one that directors keep going back to and back to, on the principle that lightning didn't strike the same place 38 times. I've only played Prospero once; the thing I chiefly remember about it was one night announcing in ringing tones, 'My Ariel, chick, that is thy charge; then to the elephants be free and fare thou well.'

Timothy West is appearing in 'Death of a Salesman' by Arthur Miller at Theatr Clwyd (0352 755114), 12 Feb-6 March

(Photograph omitted)