Compulsively watchable

Theatre: THE TEMPEST, Nottingham Playhouse
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The Independent Culture
Silviu Purcarete's passport should state his occupation as "theatre director and hypnotist". At Lift, his mesmeric Romanian Phaedra presented the heroine and her family as simply the latest casualties in the eternal war between Artemis and Aphrodite. To music whose ineffable, naggingly unresolved melody mimed the unending mythic nature of the conflict, this pair stalked the moonlit action like opposed principles of being.

Just as compulsively watchable, mysterious and music-haunted is The Tempest Purcarete has now created at Nottingham Playhouse, using a cast which, with the exception of Gheorghe Ilie's diapered Caliban, is all English. In this intelligently entrancing vision of the play, which bathes the proceedings in a swirling aqueous light, Prospero's spirits are a misshapen mini-orchestra of masked and bewigged baroque instrumentalists. Their plangent theme-tune, summoned from violins and cellos, keeps resurfacing, at times resembling far-off, woozily ethereal fairground music which sounds like an aching nostalgia for something imperfectly remembered.

Stretching over the stage are a bank of steel wires that evoke both a cluster of musical staves and the strings of the thousand twangling instruments Caliban speaks of. These cables have their comically practical purposes, too. The magically dry-cleaned garments of the shipwrecked court are spirited down to them on hangers and they later descend to form a cat's cradle of a trap for the lowlife conspirators.

Partnered by a disembodied Ariel whose whispery taped contributions are a literal case of "his master's voice", Michael Fitzgerald arrests the attention throughout with a beautifully enunciated and faintly epicene 18th-century Prospero. Shakespeare's magician is imagined here less as a man torn between vengeance and mercy than a rather mannered aesthete exercised by the competing claims of his seductively solipsistic dreamworld of art and illusion and his responsibilities as father and temporal ruler.

Wonderful images, like the moment when he secretly places a glass of wine on the revolve and watches Saira Todd's Miranda chase after it so that she can use it to moisten the lips of the labouring Ferdinand (Stephen Mangan), show Prospero poised between remaining in a rather creepily watchful control of the proceedings and preparing to bow out of them. In the key scene, though, where Antonio reconfirms his wickedness by tempting Sebastian to kill his sleeping brother, it looks here as if Prospero has rigged the experiment, not just throwing temptation in their path by keeping the pair awake but placing their respective scripts on music-stands at either side of the stage. As they proceed unwittingly through this inset play, it's a fine touch that Fitzgerald's Prospero keeps his eyes on his wicked sibling.

Not quite everything is well conceived (Caliban's carting round the enormous corpse of his mother Sycorax sets up awkward Psycho-echoes) but this Tempest will hold audiences rapt from start to finish.

n To 30 Sept (0115-941 9419); 17 Oct-11 Nov, Theatr Clwyd (01352 755114); 14-18 Nov, Tramway Glasgow (0141-227 5511)

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