CULTURE: New eye on the storm; The Tempest Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.
It's not that often that Stratford production credits include a video designer, but Lorna Heavey's dazzling optical effects bring something entirely new to a production which is strong on pictorial imagery. Oxford Stage Company director Rupert Goold (who, if I remember correctly, once directed a production of Wind in the Willows at Birmingham Rep which was set in a playroom) wastes no time in marking out some independent territory. The opening storm, usually seized on as a big production number with crashing masts and sails and sound effects drowning out the dialogue, is glimpsed through a large porthole, the characters squeezed together in a small companionway below decks. Prospero's island, a bleak northern landscape which seems a very odd place to encounter somewhere between Africa and Italy, evokes the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and images of Scott's last expedition. You would think being stranded there for 12 years would be no joke, but in fact there is a surprising emphasis on humour in the relationship of Prospero and his daughter Miranda. Patrick Stewart's Prospero is rather less of an intimidating magus than usual, and has a distinctly playful side, tipping the emphasis of the play towards the positive and its ultimate goal of reconciliation.
Marian Gale brings a real charm to Miranda by imagining how a sweet young woman might also be a bit of an oddball having been brought up in this strange environment, far away from social norms. But the most arresting performance is Julian Bleach's Ariel. Cloaked in black with white face and blackened lips, he has a chilling Nosferatu-like presence when he first appears silently in the shipwreck scene, and his voice subsequently proves as telling as his appearance. If Bleach's casting seems inspired, John Light's Caliban remains puzzling. He does what he can with the part but the make-up, including some inexplicable goggles, doesn't cover up the contradiction between his leading-man looks and the character's supposed monstrousness. And the scenes with the clowns Stephano and Trinculo can be funnier than they are here.
On the whole this is an interesting but rather mixed bag of tricks, neither entirely fish nor man, but certainly good in parts.
Running time: Two hours 50 minutes. In rep until Oct 12.
Maria Gale (Miranda), and Patrick Stewart as Prospero