Shakespeare’s last play is generally considered to be THE TEMPEST, first performed in 1611, and if that’s the case his last word is the last word of that play. I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company production at the Barbican in London a few weeks ago. The production stood out for two reasons: First, the extraordinary special effects, including an amazing hologram of drowning men, during the storm scene that kicks everything off. Secondly, for the remarkable performance of Simon Russell Beale as Prospero. Simon Russell Beale is a man who speaks Shakespearean verse as if it’s his first language which makes him very easy to understand.


Simon Russell Beale as Prospero

If you want to read a quick precis of the play before going any further you’ll find it here. Incidentally the children in the video are incredibly sweet.

Now back to that last word. At the end of the play Prospero has a speech which he delivers directly to the audience. Parallels have been drawn between Shakespeare and Prospero. Prospero’s mastery of the island has been seen as a mirroring of Shakespeare’s dominance of the English stage. So when Prospero steps away from the other actors at the end of the play and speaks directly to the audience this is what Prospero/Shakespeare says to us:


“Now my charms are all o’erthrown,

And what strength I have’s my own;

Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,

I must be here confined by you, 

Or sent to Naples. Let me not,

Since I have my dukedom got

And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell

In this bare island by your spell;

But release me from my bands

With the help of your good hands.

Gentle breath of yours my sails

Must fill, or else my project fails,

Which was to please. Now I want*

Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;

And my ending is despair,

Unless I be reliev’d by prayer,

Which pierces so that it assaults

Mercy itself and frees all faults.

As you from crime would pardon’d be,

Let your indulgence set me free.”



So if you’ve got this far there we have it  – the last word is free. It’s an unbearably  sad speech, I think, although it’s often spoken with a light touch. When I heard Russell Beale deliver it I thought I understood it but reading through it now I stop and puzzle over it more. What is meant by a ‘prayer which pierces so that it assaults Mercy itself …’? Does that simply mean a prayer so loud that God hears it? But I can’t imagine that Shakespeare thought a loud prayer would be more likely to be heard than a quiet one, can you? And what exactly is a prayer that pierces, let alone assaults? Or am I over complicating matters? This is the wonderful thing about Shakespeare – you can think you’ve got a hold of him and then he slides out of your understanding, like a feather on a breeze. But follow the feather and a whole new world opens up. Prayer. Pierce. Assault. Mercy. Contemplate those four words for a while and they may lead to some interesting places. And don’t forget that to Prospero this prayer matters because otherwise, ‘my ending is despair.’

A final word on the use of special effects in Shakespeare. THE TEMPEST, because the main character is a powerful magician and there is a strong supernatural element, lends itself to this kind of production. The storm and also the depiction of Ariel trapped in a tree by Sycorax the witch will stay with me for a very long time. But you need exceptionally good actors to act with avatars and holograms otherwise the special effects overwhelm the verse. Fortunately there aren’t any special effects that I can imagine overwhelming Russell Beale, so this production is a triumph! It’s on until the 18th August and I highly recommend it.


So it’s near the end of the year and an opportunity to offer a big thank  you to everyone who has commented, read and followed the blog. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me! And now  – yes, you’ve guessed it, another arts round up:

BOOKS: Any year that produces a new book by Pat Barker is a very good one as far as I’m concerned. She’s one of my all time favourite writers and Regeneration (the first volume of her First World War trilogy) is the book I’d take to my desert island. This year I read Noonday which is the third one of her Second World War trilogy. She writes so well you can read her very quickly but as with books by Beryl Bainbridge  I find that once I’ve finished I want to turn straight back to the beginning and start all over again. I also read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet which starts with My Brilliant Friend. I came to these a bit late but loved them. Ferrante is incredibly good at keeping you turning the pages even with protagonists who are not particularly likeable.


Some of my 2015 Arts Highlights

POETRY: Megan Beech for her book of poetry When I Grow up I want to be Mary Beard (Burning Eye Books) especially for her poem of appreciation to her Dad which contrasts the respect and love she feels for him with the often infantilizing and idiotic depiction of men in many adverts.


The Art of Flying by Antonio Altarriba and Kim

GRAPHIC NOVEL: The Art of Flying – I’m reading this at the moment and loving it. It’s set during the Spanish Civil War and is part investigation by the author of the circumstances leading up to his father’s suicide. It’s beautifully drawn and fascinating.

THEATRE:   I loved Mr Foote’s Other Leg with Simon Russell Beale playing a one-legged eighteenth century drag queen. What is not to love about that! The whole cast was fantastic in this, especially Jenny Galloway as the put upon stage manager, Mrs Garner. It was tender and funny and intellectually engaging – everything good theatre should be. A complete delight. Ian Kelly has written a wonderful play and performs the role of Prince George himself.

FILM:  I loved Birdman with Michael Keaton. Films on the trauma of creative process are right up my street although I should add I’ve never shot off the end of my nose. And incidentally I loved the ending although I know lots of people who didn’t! Also Wild Tales a film written and directed by the Argentinian Damian Szifron, which tells a number of different stories about revenge. It is incredibly funny. Anyone who has had their car ticketed and towed should definitely go and see it. *SPOILER ALERT*  for the scene where the car pound is bombed! I should also flag up Best of Enemies a brilliant documentary on Gore Vidal and William Buckley and Iris about the wonderful 93 year old New York Style icon Iris Apfel.

TV: Spiral is a fantastic French crime series. The fifth series was shown on BBC4 at the beginning of the year and it is everything good crime drama should be. I particularly enjoy Judge Roban played by the brilliant Philippe Duclos. It is gritty, sexy and beautifully acted. In some ways it reminds me of the crime novels by Dominique Manotti one of my favourite French crime writers.

River: Abi Morgan can do no wrong in my eyes. When I heard they’d cancelled the third series of The Hour I sulked and signed petitions and was then extremely pissed off at hearing that she was going to be writing a crime series.  I wanted something more original than a crime series but I was wrong and this was wonderful. In a sense River was more about mental illness than crime. Morgan writes with a lot of heart and this had a wonderful cast: Stellan Skarsgaard, Nicola Walker (also wonderful in Unforgotten),  Eddie Marsan, Lesley Manville and Adeel Akhtar.  Surely it won’t be long before someone has the good sense to write a series with Akhtar as the main character. Maybe they already have.

RADIO:It would have to be the BBC Radio 4 Zola adaptations. As soon as the thrillingly malign tones of Glenda Jackson playing the terrifying 104 year old Dide, matriarch of the Rougon-Macquart families, drifted out of the radio I knew I was hooked. They’ve only done 9 hours so far and there are going to be 24 hours in total. This is gothic, terrifying, bloody (in both senses of the word) good drama. If all the saccharine stuff about families gets you a little antsy at this time of year this would be a good antidote! Here is a family that would probably poison you at Christmas dinner or if that doesn’t work throw you off a train. Dide herself refers to her family as a pack of wolves!

GUILTY PLEASURE  – Grace and Frankie with Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. It’s on Netflix and is about two women whose husbands played by Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston leave them for each other. There’s a second series in the pipeline I’m glad to say. My bet is that if you love it you’ll really love it!

So that’s it. What have been your arts highlights of 2015? Or if it comes to that lowlights! Have there been things that the critics have raved about but have left you cold. Do tell! But whether you tell or not a very very Happy New Year to you and yours.