In Sam Mendes' stripped-back new production of The Tempest, Prospero's island is a bare circle of sand.
The action begins with the ageing wizard circling the island, scattering drops of water around its circumference, as the rest of the cast, dressed in modern black suits, sit in darkness on chairs lapped by water. It signals that this production of Shakespeare's masterpiece will put human actions centre stage.
Mendes' Tempest, premiering in New York, is the latest instalment from the Bridge Project, a collaboration between Mendes, Kevin Spacey at London's Old Vic and Joseph V Melillo of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which brings together transatlantic casts to perform classic plays. It arrives in London in June, along with As You Like It.
Shakespeare's final masterpiece is well suited to directorial innovation and Mendes revels in the opportunities available to him without imposing any over-deterministic readings.
Last year's starry cast, led by Ethan Hawke, Sinéad Cusack, Simon Russell Beale and Rebecca Hall, set the bar high. This time round, Mendes has enlisted a less instantly recognisable cast led by distinguished stage actor Stephen Dillane as Prospero. Dressed in a shabby suit and looking like a modern-day hobo, Prospero presides over his island universe, orchestrating the fates of his daughter Miranda (Juliet Rylance), spirit Ariel (Christian Camargo) and native slave Caliban (Ron Cephas Jones) along with everyone else who enters his orbit. Dillane is a middle-aged, contemplative Prospero, whose intellect outweighs his passion, while Camargo is convincingly unearthly as the ethereal Ariel.
In the most visually stunning scene of the evening, flames burst forth as Ariel enters, lit from behind by a bright white light, his arms outstretched and adorned with enormous silver wings. It heralds the arrival of Prospero's enemies including his brother, Antonio (Michael Thomas), who usurped him more than a decade ago. The new arrivals are a motley crew, who, dressed in dinner jackets and clutching cigars and wine bottles, look as if they've just emerged from a louche gentleman's club. Dressed in an uncomfortably tight checked suit, Anthony O'Donnell plays jester Trinculo as a ducking-and-diving type, with inventive physical comedy.
Tom Piper's sparse set is complemented by Paul Pyant's lighting, which uses a vibrant colour palette to evoke sunrise, sunset and nightfall. There is much to admire in this production but not all of Mendes' innovations work. A back-projected home video, supposedly of Miranda as a little girl, which appears during the wedding scene, feels jarringly out of place. The action is muddled at times and the occasional line is forgotten or swallowed up in translation, hopefully faults that will be mended before the play transfers to London in June.
The three-year collaboration has given the Old Vic a unique transatlantic profile. Only time will tell whether this brave theatrical experiment ultimately equals the sum of its parts.
To 13 Mar (Bam.org); 'The Tempest' and 'As You Like It' come to the Old Vic, London, from 12 Jun to 21 Aug (Oldvictheatre.com)