First Night: The Tempest, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon

Emotional heat warms a strange icy wasteland adds a sense of strangeness

In terms of climate, though not of feeling, Rupert Goold's remarkably fresh new main-stage production ofThe Tempest at Stratford must be the coldest on record. Instead of the usual vague desert island, the setting here is a frozen polar wasteland. The shipwrecked courtiers shiver in howling blizzards clad in a combination of dinner- and life-jackets. The jester Trinculo (Craig Gazey) skates around with frying pans strapped to his feet.

In the spooky mock-banquet, the fir coated spirits drag on a sledge with a huge dead fish from whose bloody, blubbery innards Julian Bleach's eerie, horror-movie Ariel spectacularly bursts in the guise of a harpy.

If it certainly renews a feeling of the play's strangeness, this relocation also threatens to become distracting in its specificity and it blurs the impression that Prospero's isle is a weirdly relativistic place, striking people differently according to their natures and temperament.

Giles Cadle's set is so ostentatiously Arctic that the honest counsellor Gonzalo (James Hayes) sounds barmy (and raises and unexpected laugh) when he tosses a handful of snow and declares: "How lush and lusty the grass looks! How green!"

Emotionally, though, this is a heated Tempest. As Prospero, Patrick Stewart speaks the verse with commanding artistry and veers movingly between spasms of vehement vengeful anger and hard-won humane restraint. He gives a detailed unjudgemental performance that adroitly encompasses the contradictions in the exiled Duke. This is a Prospero who can be pettily spiteful, spitting in the dog-bowl of food left out for John Light's snarling, intelligent Caliban, and clumsily tender, wiping the smudges off his daughter's face with a licked hankie, before he engineers her encounter with Ferdinand. Mariah Gale is an excellent, touching Miranda, as gawkily stiff and eccentrically direct as you'd expect a girl to be who'd grown up in such isolation. When she is confronted with a "brave new world" of strangers, there's a stinging irony here that she innocently embraces Ken Bones's obduratly evil Antonio. Stewart twists the heart, too, at the end when he throws his magic staff into the flames left by the departure of Ariel and communicates the essential, now undefended loneliness of the self- renouncing sorcerer.

This production ofThe Tempest begins with a cod shipping forecast and a staging of the storm from the packed, almost Marks Brothers-like perspective of the vessel's radio room. But initial worries that ingenuity and deviations from convention are going to be given priority over honest insights gradually subside.

It could have felt premature to present a play that (despite his three later collaborative pieces) is sentimentally regarded as Shakespeare's farewell to his art less than half way through the Complete Works season at Stratford. But the RSC were right to take advantage of Patrick Stewart's availability while they could. On those grounds, the programming makes perfect sense.

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