There can’t be an actress alive who’s as elemental as Vanessa Redgrave, so the first thing to note about her gender-bending Prospero in “The Tempest,” the Globe’s season-opener in its summer lineup of four plays, is the decidedly earthbound nature of her portrayal, even as (on opening night, at least) nature unfurled a genuine London tempest around her. Redgrave, dogged? How can that be, one might well ask, having watched this performer take so many risks throughout her career that merely inheriting a role once played by her father would seem the least of her exercises in bravado? The problem, I suspect, lies in the lack of an authoritative outside eye to shape an intriguing array of ideasthat, for the moment, doesn’t equal a performance. The play’s eloquent appeal to “melting the darkness” notwithstanding, Redgrave has yet to reach that alchemical destination.
That’s in no way to question the casting of an actress who, on paper at least , is a tremendous prospect for the role. Having launched her career with a Rosalind that has become the stuff of legend, it surely makes sense for Redgrave — now in her 60s — to turn to another Shakespearean character who steps outside the play at the close, albeit in a more melancholic guise than the heroine of “As You Like It.” Nor should a woman cause any confusion taking on this male assignment.
It’s not just that Redgrave, with her considerable frame and build, can easily suggest a mannish demeanor: As clothed with Wellington boots and a fez by Bjanka Ursulov, the actress first resembles the Vita Sackville-West whom she played Off Broadway in 1994, until the addition of a leather coat in the second act puts one in mind of Mata Hari.
More important than attire is the fact that Prospero — much like Richard II when Fiona Shaw took on that part at the National Theater five years ago — in some ways exists beyond gender: He is displaced duke of Milan and exile and even enchanter first, whatever we mean by man (or woman) afterward.
The best way, indeed, to approach this “Tempest” might be to banish expectation, so that the often surprising strengths of Lenka Udovicki’s staging — and they are real — are released as quietly as Geraldine Alexander’s white-faced Ariel, whose own best moment comes with her final disappearance into the audience once she has been liberated by Prospero.
The Globe has very much presented itself as a theater about play in the four years that artistic director Mark Rylance (last season’s cross-dressed Cleopatra) has been programming plays there. And this production, more than any I have seen at this address so far, is nothing if not playful.
That’s not only to do with breaking the fourth wall, an accomplishment dubiously arrived at with Redgrave’s sternly spoken “no tongues,” followed by a “you be silent” to the crowd lest any of us giggle at Prospero’s over-investment in Miranda and Ferdinand’s locked lips. (Not at all funny are the amateurish perfs of the lovers.)
Far more resonant is the triumphant teamwork of this play’s comic triple-act, Caliban (Jasper Britton), Trinculo (Steven Alvey, an utterly endearing Simon Russell Beale lookalike) and Stefano (Steffan Rhodri), the collective bane of many a staging who — in a play about usurpation — here manage to do precisely that.
Of course they address the “groundlings” (those audience members standing throughout the play), characterizing at least one unwitting onlooker as a “hedgehog.” But the three also reach out to one another, enacting their own calamitous ceremony of misrule until Caliban — in Britton’s bravely stirring performance — reminds us of the poet buried beneath the mud-caked brute.
(If the actor manages to survive the run without getting pneumonia, that will be an act of sorcery beyond any in Prospero’s charge, given Britton’s largely unclothed presence on a cold, damp stage.)
What this almost defiantly pre-Freudian “Tempest” doesn’t convey are the psychological underpinnings of a play steeped in issues of power, domination and freedom, as embodied first by Prospero with Miranda and then with Ariel, as well as by Caliban and his drunken, debauched sidekicks.
That’s partly because Redgrave’s newly acquired low, harsh voice — an accent inexplicably flecked with Celtic (an editorial comment on England’s domination of Ireland? Who knows?) — seems willfully short on rapture, as if to surrender to the sheer humanity of the play would be to “feminize” it in some indefinable way.
If Redgrave had to alter her voice at all, and I’m in no way sure that she did, a golden opportunity is let slip near the end following the reference to “all of us ourselves.” There, one feels, is the chance for a singular talent to give vent to her own startling and singular voice — what one might call Redgrave herself.
But no: The actress remains glum-voiced and one-note even as Prospero bids us farewell, the “revels” ended of a performance in which, sadly, they never really began.