Let me start by saying that I’m a big fan of the work of Sam Mendes. His 1994 production of Cabaret starring Natasha Richardson remains one of the most memorable evenings of theater that I’ve experienced in over forty years of attending plays in New York, London, Cambridge, Mass., and elsewhere.
But things were a little rough last night during his Bridge Project’s fourth performance of The Tempest last night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. And I’m not only talking about forgotten lines, clumsy blocking, and some stagecraft that didn’t quite work. What seems most problematic is the uneven pace of the play. It doesn’t run as long as the Project’s other production: As You Like It took 3 hours and 40 minutes on the night that I saw it, and the first two acts were played as if they’d been lifted from a Chekhov play. The lines were delivered ponderously and with frequent pauses. Intermission came at the end of Act 2 with the staged death of the servant Adam after Duke Senior’s closing lines:
Good old man,
Thou art right welcome as thy master is.
Support him by the arm. Give me your hand,
And let me all your fortunes understand.
Perhaps Mendes was making a bridge between last season’s Project (which featured The Cherry Orchard) and this year’s. But the result was a production that lacked a coherent directorial vision, in stark contrast to last year’s productions (and Cabaret several years ago).
The same problem afflicted last night’s Tempest, which ran two-and-a-half hours without intermission (the insert in the program had promised a running time of two hours). The production felt static, and the conceit of having the characters not active in a given scene seated in chairs in a puddle of water at the rear of the stage served only to emphasize the overall lack of dynamism in the production.
As I result, I felt my mind wandering. Perhaps I have Percy Jackson on the brain (I’ve just started reading the second book), but surely I should not have been thinking about The Lightning Thief during Prospero’s famous “rough magic speech”:
… to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book. [Italics added.]
And certainly I shouldn’t have been thinking about the television series Lost during the final act and hoping that The Tempest might yet prove to be a significant intertext for the show.
What I’ll remember fondly from this year’s Bridge Project are Ron Cephas Jones as Charles the Wrestler and, especially, Caliban; Anthony O’Donnell as Trinculo; the hole in the sand through which Jones’s Caliban first appears; and, above all, Juliet Rylance’s portrayals of Rosalind and Miranda. I’ll be following her Rylance’s career with interest from now on.
[Above: publicity photo of As You Like It released by the BAM Press Office, showing Anthony O’Donnell (Corin), left, Thomas Sadoski (Fool) and Juliet Rylance (Rosalind), right, (AP Photo/BAM Press Office, Joan Marcus)]