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A CurtainUp Review
By Brian Clover
With a mighty crash the storm starts and the chattering audience are thrust into The Tempest. Sailors shout and curse then fall to pray. The precarious rope ladder stretched from stage to ceiling shakes and the play has begun. At the height of the storm Prospero appears in the background through the quivering backcloth, controlling both the elements and the fates of those aboard the ship. In a Coup de theatre worthy of Cirque de Soleil, he masters and tames it with his staff. The backcloth falls from the proscenium to the stage and the storm is magically sucked back between the pages of the book he holds in his hand. He places it on a shelf as if it had never happened and all is calm for a second. The audience is thoroughly awed. What a treat we have in store! we thought, and hope the rest of the first half of this production can match this level of invention.
The production seems to be bedding in well even if some lines seem too fast as if the cast were in a hurry to get to the interval. I was beginning to lose my high hopes when to everyone's delight, like a spent seeming firework, it flared up with life again after the interval. The plot and pacing started to swing in a more comfortable rhythm and this ensured that when the effects came they really worked. A terrifying black winged spirit rose from a bowl of fruit and lets us (and the conspirators against Prospero) know that this is the magician's show, as Shakespeare intended.
And it is a show capable of beauty as well as terror: when the reciprocally bereaved father and son are shown to one another the scene is genuinely moving. That Ferdinand and Alonso's reunion is literally ‘staged' under the proscenium of the theatre that Miranda and her father inhabit completes this picture of Prospero as a showman rather than a demigod. His revealing of Miranda and her oncoming nuptials is made to seem like a man giving away all he possesses in his life with only a kingdom in return, a kingdom where "my every third thought will be of the grave."
As such it seemed ill-advised to have Prospero costumed as a split personality who changes from flowing robes to a rather restrained middle aged man's leisure wear from scene to scene. Although this means we do get a sense of him as both man and Hero, father and Revenger, Derek Jacobi and the audience seem to far prefer the wizard with his magic to the man with his cardigan. This is a bold manoeuvre that doesn't quite come off but is nonetheless offset by the sheer power and grace with which Jacobi hands both the big bits and the little. Those of us who remember Jacobi's tour de force performance as the Emperor with disabilities in BBC TV's ‘I Claudius' – and ‘we' must include the producers, writers and performers of HBO's ‘Sopranos', with which it has so much in common – know that his strength is virtue rather than vengeance.
Prospero and Miranda (Claire Price) together with their fantastical servants live on a truly magical isle and have made their home in a theatre by the sea. The theatre within a theatre setting is a typical Shakespeare conceit – ‘the world's a stage!' – and has many meanings. An old man giving away his possesions, the righting of injustices and the emancipation of everyone trapped by their past: Prospero's island is a kind of Purgatory, where both performers and we, the audience, purge our faults and emotions. But Prospero is no Frasier Crane: there are real issues and real pain to be dealt with. This is a production to make you think as well as marvel.
Derek Jacobi's performance is, of course, masterful but I'm not quite sure the styling of Prospero both as Sorceror and faintly annoying father figure quite works as he does such a good job of the former that the latter feels like a let-down. But then, if you're grown up, your father is always annoying when you visit him in his own home…
But the Caliban is excellent, Louis Hilyer creates everything you need for the audience to feel both repulsion and pity for this creature. His humbling before his freedom seems just and touching rather than the vicious act some other productions present. Some may find Daniel Evans' Ariel somewhat annoyingly camp, but he has a lovely singing voice and really does move like a ethereal being might.
Michael Grandage's production is discreet and thoughtful and deserves credit along with Christopher Oram's ingenious design conceits. This is one of Shakespeare's shortest plays: but the production leaves you wanting more.