British Black and Asian Shakespeare Performance Database
The Tempest (1970): Mermaid Theatre, London
PrThe Tempest (1970)
CAST INCLUDED: Norman Beaton (Ariel); Graham Crowden (Prospero); Angela Pleasance (Miranda); Martin Thurley (Ferdinand); Rudolph Walker (Caliban).
There are conflicting references to two or three black women playing other parts, including in the reviews below; as there is no definitive evidence as of yet, they have been omitted from the database until a definitive source is found for the information.
"Prospero's island has a colonial atmosphere in this production by Jonathan Miller. He has made Ariel and Caliban black. Not only them - the three Greek goodesses who are conjured up in Prospero's vision are black too. Before long Prospero's promises to free Ariel begin to make him sound like the name of a small island island in the British West Indies (somewhere near Anguilla) which is always being promised independence but never getting it. In fact the strongest thing in the cast are the black actors - Rudolph Walker's great giggling Caliban and Norman Beaton's elegant native batman of an Ariel. The latter sings beautifully, as do the three Martiniquian goddesses, in Carl Davis's songs in the Purcellian style. This scene is extraordinary: an operatic set-piece which comes as the welcome relief from the unmusically spoken word. What the production needs badly is attention to the ordinary theatrical business of pace, variety, excitement, and movement in the rest of it. I have seldom heard verse - even such verse as 'Our revels now are ended' - ironed out so flat. Graham Crowden's old and testy Prospero far too often settles into a tired monotone as though his magic powers had taken too much out of him altogether." ~ Peter Lewis, "Tempest with a colonial touch", Daily Mail, 16 June 1970
"I cannot recall a production of The Tempest before Jonathan Miller's at the Mermaid that catches such a hold on the imagination while exploring so vividly certain implications in the text. Taking as one of his cues Prospero's repeated references to Ariel and Caliban as his slaves Miller has them played by black actors. Norman Beaton's Ariel is the lordly African colonized by European Prospero, impatient for independence. Rudolph Walker's Caliban is the ex-African degraded into New World slave, used solely for Prospero's profit. Mr. Beaton and Mr. Walker speak Shakespeare's verse and point the lines with a sensitive precision exceptional among West Indian actors....I have read that the production lacks 'magic'. Certainly it does away with Ariel hopping about as a harpy, and vanishing fairy banquets. But in this particular scene the shipwrecked courtiers stare transfixed at nothing we can see and simultaneously the right hands of all six draw white kerchiefs from their doublets to serve as napkins." ~ Punch, 24 June 1970, unattributed press cutting in V&A Performance collection
"The production is in a class by itself even by Miller's standards as it manages at once to introduce a bold governing idea while also treating the work with almost breathless reverence....Crudely, Miller offers The Tempest as a colonial parable. Caliban, of course, has often been seen from that point of view. This production strengthens it by placing Ariel in the same perspective; and casting the thing of darkness and the airy spirit (not to mention two of the nuptial goddessess) as blacks. The production allots to each a separate rank in the colonial order: Caliban the incurable dependent who is anxious only to exchange one bondage for another; and Ariel, the impatient heir to power and independence who picks up Prospero's broken staff at the end as a prelude to assuming control of the island. This pattern also embraces Stephano and Trinculo, who exhibits colonialism in a brutally primitive form: and Prospero, whose need for slaves is certainly as great as Caliban's need for a master. Rather than purusing this scheme any farther I had rather dwell on how it has been brought to life. The production is staged on a rather ugly ramp and adopts the tone of a masque without the spectacular trimmings. You get its quality at once from Miranda's first speech, entering from above and delivering her plea for the storm victims straight out to the audience, as if in a dream, while Prospero sits below in his cell. Every step of the action is precisely registered, but never by resort to naturalism. The objections to Prospero as a fussy old authoritarian simply do not apply in this world of high magic, tenderness and wonder....Or take the episode of the magical feast. Instead of the apparition of the harpy and parade of spectral waiters in cornucopian headgear, Norman Beaton as Ariel descends on a bare stage, slow-moving and dignified as ever in his black costume; while the courtiers stare in amazement at a vision above th eaudience, stretch out their hands and freeze. This is a true invocation to theatrical magic." ~ Irving Wardle, "Breathless magic", The Times, 16 June 1970
"Jonathan Miller at the Mermaid has got it into his head that Shakespeare's dramatic last word has some relevance to the psychology of colonisation - whatever that means - which has enabled him to site the action in some sort of Caribbean island where the natives are black and the imperialists represented by white Italians who have stumbled upon the place from Milan and Naples. Prospero, as played by Graham Crowden, thus emerges as a thoughtful, elderly beach-comber trying to organise a special relationship between himself and the black locals - Ariel and Caliban - who are under his avuncular spell. Ariel, instead of the usual athletic sprite, is a rather sedate, world-weary Haitian butler who goes about his ethereal tasks with a magic whisk and looking for the most part as if his chief concern is overtime. Norman Beaton handles this novel interpretation with the circumspect dignity of an old hand from a domestic agency. The only evidence of Caliban's semi-human proportions is the fact that he wears a soiled, army greatcoat and Rudolph Walker's grumbling creature has the endearing quality of a rasping, grovelling, ingratiating Uncle Tom....Mr. Miller, too, has taken the Bard's description of 'a most desolate isle' very literaly and the place is a sort of grey refuse dump whose potentialities could only have attracted the most desperate colonisers. The most amusing innovation in this production is a kind of Caribbean operetta in which Iris, Juno and Ceres, conducted by Prospero, sing away to enchanting effect and give the impression that the 'isle full of noises' is a sort of recruiting ground for Covent Garden talent. Trying too hard to squeeze his imperialist allegory into a story that will obviously resist such an interpretation, Mr. Miller's production has also succeeded in depriving The Tempest of its natural magic and its supernatural charm." ~ Milton Shulman, "Prospero's wind of change...", Evening Standard, 16 June 1970
"Some day I must cross swords with Jonathan Miller, the producer I love to hate....Now his highly intelligent attempt to turn The Tempest into a parable about colonialism did not persuade me that this notion (tried once before incidentally) ever benefits the play for which I have the greatest reverence and affection....Mr Miller has the island's natives - sprites and demons - cast by black actors, quite a good idea by way of making the point of a stranger usurping power in a foreign isle. But the Caliban (Rudolph Walker) does not get at the pity of the poor oppressed beast of burden one bit and the 'delicate Ariel' (Norman Beaton) as a rather lazy-footed kind of native butler with a fly-whisk also seemed to me to miss the heart of the role: nothing thereat, a big solid house-boy rather, with a certain sly charm." ~ Philip Hope-Wallace, "The Tempest", The Guardian, 16 June 1970
"True, he has theories about colonialism that he supports by the use of a coloured Ariel and Caliban. We need not worry over this. The most important thing is that most of his innovations work. The worrying passages are not laboured; there are no Shapes, no banquet, but we see them clearly enough through the eyes of the shipwrecked King and courtiers as these stare affrighted towards the audience. Ariel, too, makes no attempt to disguise himself; he is no airy spirit ready to be a nymph of the sea or a harpy. Invariably he is a grave, measured young man in Elizabethan dress, who performs Prospero's demands efficiently and who, at the last, may succeed to the governorship of the isle. Norman Beaton establishes him precisely. Throughout, Dr. Miller avoids the customary point-making. Prospero's great soliloquies are no longer set pieces; Graham Crowden grows into the part with quiet eloquence; and from the rest of the night where only the operatic masque, with Prospero's accompaniment, disconcerts me, I think of Angela Pleasance's absolute simplicity as Miranda and George Benson's honest Gonzalo." ~ Illustrated London News, 27 June 1970, unattributed press cutting in V&A Performance collection
Do you have anything to add to this page?
Pe People involved in this production
- British Black and Asian Shakespeare Database by the University of Warwick, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council 2012-2015, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. See full copyright statement.