To present Stephano, the drunken butler, and Trinculo, the court jester, merely as a pair of drunken clowns is to oversimplify their roles in The Tempest, one of Shakespeare's most enigmatic plays. The presence of Caliban in the Stephano/Trinculo scenes allows Shakespeare to use the murder sub-plot to reinforce the dark, conspiratorial world of the play, and emphasise the important themes of the master-servant relationship and the elusive nature of power and freedom. However, these scenes are not easy to play because the two characters are not especially funny in themselves; the humour comes more from what they do than what they say. An example of this is Act 2 Scene 2, the “gabardine scene”, where the director needs to bring humour into the scene whilst ensuring that it does not undermine the relationship between the low life characters and their place in the play. The threat of the conspiracy is enough to make Prospero break off the nuptial masque (“the minute of their plot/Is almost come”), and the audience needs to feel this imminent danger too.
The RSC staged a particularly successful and highly regarded production of The Tempest in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 1993, which I was lucky enough to see. The director, Sam Mendes, achieved genuine humour, but not at the expense of the conspiracy hatched by Caliban and his drunken comrades. He said of these characters, “You get a sense of the sub-plot echoing the main plot, parodying those other characters. It allows us to review the central plot, when we return to it with greater clarity. So their purpose in the play is important.” Mendes turned Trinculo, played superbly by David Bradley, into a northern comic who's down on his luck. Influenced by Little Titch, the music hall comic in his dress, David Bradley wore a check suit with huge boots. His “prop” was a ventriloquist’s dummy, similarly dressed. Stephano, played by Mark Lockyer, wore a ship steward’s uniform of white coat and bow tie, with buck teeth, a fake posh accent, and a beer belly. Swigging from his bottle, he reminded audiences of “a loathsome cross of Oliver Reed and Terry Thomas” (The Observer) or “a refugee from a P.G.Wodehouse novel” (The Spectator). Stephano and Trinculo are shown as totally unsympathetic characters; they are callous, opportunistic, and self-serving. Caliban (David Troughton) enters a servant/master relationship with these two, echoing his relationship with Prospero; only this time it is brought about through the power of alcohol.
In this production, Trinculo’s dummy was as much a comfort to him as Stephano’s need for his bottle. It also served to emphasise both his growing melancholy as the play progressed, and the powerlessness of the visitors in an environment where Prospero’s magic powers rule over all the island. Ariel (played magnificently by Simon Russell Beale) said “thou liest” in the puppet’s voice in Act 3 Scene 2, as if to suggest it is betraying Trinculo, providing another example of the master unable to control his subject. In Act 5 scene 1, Mendes captured Trinculo’s increasing loneliness when he reappeared without the puppet, which had disappeared into the pool, but holding his arm as if he were still cradling it.
Sam Mendes envisaged The Tempest as a play about theatre, where Prospero’s magic was portrayed specifically as theatre magic. The play opened with a bare boarded stage, in the centre of which stood a wicker basket, the type used for theatrical props. It was a clever device used to great effect at the end of Act 2, scene 2, when Trinculo and his puppet, Stephano and Caliban, in high spirits and singing of their illusory freedom (“Freedom, high-day, freedom!”), climb back into skip, but still very firmly under control. The actors left the stage through a trap door below the basket which Ariel then pulled off stage, with distant voices seemingly coming from the basket. In Act 4 Scene 1, the basket contained the “trumpery” which Propsero had ordered Ariel to bring to them. Once again, the ensuing clowning made the scene funnier. At the same time, it intensified Caliban’s desperation in trying to make Trinculo and Stephano focus on the murder, and revealed the fantasy ambitions of Stephano, who donned a beard and crown and sent up Prince Charles. The prop basket was the means by which the “low-life” characters, unrepentant to the end, were finally transported off the stage.
For once, the roles of Stephano and Trinculo fitted seamlessly into a meaningful and well-executed production. It is not always the case with these two desperados.