By a nice paradox, Kananu Kirimi's Ariel – an enchantingly gamine figure in cream doublet and hose, with a lilting Caribbean accent – proves to be one of the least aerial characters in Michael Boyd's striking new RSC production of The Tempest. Reminding you how easily the great dome of the Roundhouse can be made to resemble a Big Top, the mariners in the shipwreck and the spirits of the island (who are like verdigrised transmogrifications of the mariners) dangle from the ceiling on ropes and ladders, performing daredevil, mid-air stunts as they mime dreamy slo-mo drowning or (in the betrothal masque) an arousingly pelvic pendulum swing of a coupling. (The imaginative movement is by Liz Rankin and Gavin Marshall.)
Tom Piper's fine design gives us a tiered-looking Tempest. Between the steep ranks of the seating and the floor where the groundling punters hunker, there's a circular wooden walkway at some remove from the raised, deck-like structure that provides a kind of stage of within a stage. Boyd uses the whole of the available space in dramatically telling ways. The spirits advance ominously down the radiating aisles, with Malcolm Storry's brawny Prospero stationed at the top of one of them for surveillance. The distance between the walkway and the inner stage creates an electric intimacy between characters communicating across the gulf, as in the current of uneasy connivance that passes between Tom Beard's burly rotter of a Sebastian and Brian Protheroe's insidious Antonio in the crisply acted temptation scene.
This production expresses some of its best ideas through a graphic physicality. The feast with which the spirits tease the courtiers is a hideously carnal affair of meat sucked from a decapitated swan, which terrifyingly starts to life as Ariel. The episode becomes a demonstration of debased character, with the shipwrecked toffs ending up as bloodied in sartorial fact as they always have been in intent.
The labours of Alan Turkington's touchingly macho Ferdinand are lent a comic dimension. The logs he has to bear are impersonated by a Sisyphean rota of straight-faced spirits. And the power of his attraction to Sirine Saba's sexy Miranda is rendered muscular by the amusing tug of war between our hero straining at the rope to which he's tethered and the team of spirits struggling to drag him away. There are also fine performances from Simon Gregor's Trinculo, a jester who is evidently a Jacobean precursor of Norman Wisdom, and a drag Ceres (James Telfer) who brings a whole fruit basket of Carmen Miranda to the court masque.
You're keenly aware of the body, too, in the climactic moment when Storry's Prospero finally abjures his magic. There's a wonderfully heady pause before he brings his foot down on his staff, splitting it in two. And we, like him, are so preoccupied by this hesitation that we also fail to notice how Ariel has vanished, bereavingly, at the very moment of being granted liberty. This vivid production deserves to play to full houses.
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