Beasts and Beauties, Old Vic, Bristol

Supple's subtle brilliance
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The Independent Culture

Once upon a time there was a director called Tim Supple. And he had some noteworthy adventures on the stage of the Young Vic, where he was artistic director. But then he ventured out to the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre. There, bogeymen in the shape of other artistic directors, who were not taking wise enough care of their employees, allowed his extraordinarily talented work to rot slightly in the wide open spaces of their neglect.

Once upon a time there was a director called Tim Supple. And he had some noteworthy adventures on the stage of the Young Vic, where he was artistic director. But then he ventured out to the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre. There, bogeymen in the shape of other artistic directors, who were not taking wise enough care of their employees, allowed his extraordinarily talented work to rot slightly in the wide open spaces of their neglect.

And lo, he went back to the RSC to mount a clever, but not sufficiently clever, adaptation of Midnight's Children which ever-so-slightly cringed - despite bravely waving and not drowning - in the depths of the main stage at the Barbican. And it went on to America where theatre-goers would not be seen dead judging, let alone judging badly, anything penned by Salman Rushdie. And such is the weirdness of the chemistry of theatre that I am quite prepared to believe people who say that on certain nights that show went through the roof.

And once upon a time, Supple wended his way back through the forests of indifference and in a sublime, sun-blessed thicket, he found former loves waiting for him in tranquillity. To put names to these figures: the brothers Grimm (he had done two wonderful stage adaptations of their work at the Young Vic) and Simon Reade, with whom he has collaborated on several projects - not least a theatrical version of Ted Hughes's extraordinarily brilliant Tales from Ovid.

Reade is now one of the duumvirate (the other is the multi-talented, several-hatted David Farr) running Bristol Old Vic, with slightly uncanny flair, in a climate where (thanks to the likes of them) regional theatre is currently healthier than it has been in fifteen years.

And once upon a time, Supple proved that you can revisit material in a way that is not a simple reheating exercise, or a whisking of something from back burner to front. For a start, his whole - wonderfully witty, warm, wise - approach to these psychologically complex stories - has had to be reconceived because of an abrupt alteration of space. At the Young Vic, we were talking modern building and an in-the-round configuration. At Bristol Old Vic, we are talking exquisite Georgian building and a proscenium arch. There are those who have thought that Supple's directing ability could not be transported to non-in-the-round spaces, or spaces that can stand in for in-the-round like the Swan in Stratford. This show decisively routs that idea.

It also draws to your attention the talents of an actor (who is also a writer) called Elliot Levey. If there is a performer of greater, wacky charm on the English stage, well, I'll be on the next train to see him or her. He's very Jewish and he has the best curvy, slightly manic face that you could wish for to get across syncopated lunacy. What he can do with a line of dialogue while hustling the rest of himself past it so that he seems not only on the job but sizing up other orders at the same time is a marvel.

My mental picture, watching him act, is of a great jazz musician jamming. As maybe you will have gathered, I would not actively prevent anyone from attending this show. The first night audience did not exit from the theatre, they hovercrafted out of it on a balloon of bliss.

To 1 May (0117 9877877)

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