The Critics: A Prospero for the digital age

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The Independent Culture
Theatre

The Tempest

Leeds West Yorkshire Playhouse

The Riot

Cottesloe, SE1

Copenhagen

Duchess, WC2

Last week, Sir Ian McKellen's lavish Official Home Page on the Internet was quick to post the news that he was an Oscar nominee for his new movie Gods and Monsters. His website wasn't as up to the minute with his theatre work, which lists him as "currently rehearsing at the Royal National ". As many readers will know, Sir Ian has moved to Leeds, to play in The Seagull and Present Laughter and last week, The Tempest. The night the Oscar nominations were announced, Sir Ian was on stage doing Shakespeare.

For a column - such as this one - which takes an interest in the range of props that Sir Ian uses, the prospect of him playing a character who's been stranded on an island for 12 years is tantalising. But he has found plenty.

There is the battered leatherbound book from which he gets ideas for Ariel; a taper for lighting the fire in each one of a circle of stones; keys that he jingles and jangles; deep pockets into which he can plunge his hands to rattle the keys; the cardigan sleeves he rolls up to his elbows to suggest hands-on engagement; a battered straw hat that he pulls over his eyes with boulevard nonchalance; chains that he kicks wearily around the floor; an old russet sofa for the afternoon snooze; a toy boat with which he conjures up the opening storm; a polythene sheet that he uses as his blanket and robe; and a splintered bamboo cane that clicks and clacks, and from which he derives his "rough magic".

McKellen colonises every object in sight. Each prop he grabs lends some colour to the line he delivers. When he tears a page out of the leather- bound book, for instance, he gives the line a pressured, jerky quality. The one prop he carries with him from role to role is his baleful face. As Prospero, he excels itself. There are dogs who haven't been out for a walk all day who don't match him for calculated mournfulness.

McKellen's Prospero is a late-middle-aged dad, a loveable grouch who'd be happiest falling asleep on the sofa with a book, but who has decided to make life tough for his teenage daughter's first boyfriend. There's a Steptoe-ish streak to Sir Ian as he pads and shuffles, in cardigan and breeches, and plays the high-risk game of downbeat acting. It works best with his early exposition to Miranda (Claudie Blakley), and with the soliloquies, which are gems of verse-speaking.

The shame in Jude Kelly's production is that this clarity is surrounded by mess. The designer, Robert Innes Hopkins, has come up with four separate design concepts. There's a literal one, with the number of days in exile (hundreds of them) chalked up as single strokes on the back wall. There's a mythic, incantatory one with a circle of stones. There's an Irvine Welsh one, with sinister chains hanging down from the dungeon walls. And there's an abstract one with multi-purpose polythene sheets that bring opaqueness just where you might want transparency.

This Tempest exposes the dangers of using the same ensemble cast for three plays. With only a cast of 12, Alonso, the King of Naples, Sebastian, his brother and Antonio, Prospero's brother are played by young women in tails and sashes. They look as if they would have only been kids when they were suppposed to have usurped Sir Ian. Timothy Walker is a feverish, melodramatic Caliban, and Will Keen and Willie Ross, as the entertainer Trinculo and the butler Stephano form a sharply pointed double act.

Jude Kelly packs her production with eye-catching ideas, but it isn't clear if these stem from necessity or inspiration. To take one example: Rhashan Stone is an elegant and engaging Ferdinand. But when we see this black actor sitting on stage with a chain around his neck we pick up on a striking visual allusion to slavery - and yet we don't know how, in the context of his character, that chilling resonance applies.

The Kneehigh of Cornwall are caught in a catch-22 situation. They wouldn't have a national profile if they didn't come and play at the National. But the experience of seeing them at the Cottesloe probably pales beside the experience of seeing them give one of their site-specific performances along the coastline or above a tin mine. With a first night at the National, it's a case of Kneehigh bringing some community theatre to some of the theatre community.

The Riot, Nick Darke's attractive and entertaining new play, is based on a true story about the violence that broke out in the 1890s when the fishermen of Newlyn tried to stop the fishermen of Lowestoft from fishing on Sundays. Darke expands this to take on the closure of the local tin mine that forced men to emigrate. Like many true stories, The Riot never sounds very plausible. Darke's distinctive and original tone shifts between the funny and the jokey. Mike Shepherd's zestful production matches Darke's faux-naif world with its cartoonish good humour. It's enjoyable enough, but never quite enough.

Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen is an under-rated study in human emotions. Seeing it the first time, the story of the relationship between the two nuclear physicists, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, dazzled us with its science. Seeing it a second time, in its transfer to the West End, it revealed new emotional layers. Parents lose a son (in a boating accident) and find a surrogate one who then betrays them. The balance between "father" and "son" shifts dramatically, and both feel tremendously conflicting emotions as the protege exerts power over the mentor. That is complicated by the testy relationship between the mentor's wife and the protege.

Copenhagen is about living in an occupied country during war, about academic careerism (the pursuit of chairs), the moral responsibility that lies in research, and the precision that can be found within intellectual disciplines compared to the infinitive vagueness that surrounds human motivation. In other words, like the best plays, Copenhagen is a prism. Thanks to Michael Blakemore's superbly focused production, and faultless performances from David Burke, Sara Kestelman and Matthew Marsh, each emotion shines through with remarkable clarity.

From its first night last May it was evident it was going to be the play of the year. It has gone on to win two Best Play awards. Yes, Copenhagen is about science and the making of the atom bomb. But that's only part of it.

'Tempest': Leeds WYP (0113 213 7700), to Saturday; 'Riot': Cottesloe, SE1 (0171 452 3000), to April; 'Copenhagen': Duchess, WC2 (0171 495 5075), to 7 August.

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