I‘ve seen Prospero played as a benign schoolmaster, colonial overlord and Faustian necromancer. But Roger Allam brings something new to the party by suggesting that Prospero is first and foremost a father: what we see, in this riveting performance of Shakespeare’s usurped protagonist, is a man torn between possessive concern for his adored Miranda and recognition that she is an agent of reconciliation with his enemies.
You glimpse the intensity of the father-daughter relationship in the exposition: in lengthily recapping the past, Allam’s Prospero seems genuinely curious to hear Miranda’s earliest memories. He also eavesdrops on the first amorous encounter between Miranda and Ferdinand by spreadeagling himself on an upper platform like a paternal peeping tom. The payoff comes in an unusually comic wedding-masque, when Prospero silently mouths Iris’s injunction that “no bed-right shall be paid till Hymen’s torch be lighted” and ends each round-dance by partnering his daughter. Although he gives it plenty of welly, I found it hard to believe Allam when he claimed that “graves at my command have waked their sleepers”. But it’s a major performance that shows Prospero to be a man of feeling who even sheds a furtive tear at Ariel’s enfranchisement and who, in handing over his daughter, recognises that love sometimes means letting go.
Jeremy Herrin’s pleasing production avoids the temptation to turn the play into a spectacular island fling. Magic is created through simple means, such as a shower of petals descending from the sky or Stephen Warbeck’s music emanating from every corner of the building. As in his Much Ado at this venue, Herrin sometimes slows the pace to maximise the laughs, but he gets good performances from Jessie Buckley and Joshua James as the enraptured lovers, Colin Morgan as a nimble Ariel and James Garnon as a Caliban who burps and spits in the groundlings’ faces.
In the end, however, the evening belongs to Allam, who exercises fingertip control over the audience and turns Prospero into a Verdi-like hero whose emotional dynamic derives entirely from overwhelming fatherly affection.