The Tempest, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford,
Henry VI, Parts 1-3, Courtyard, Stratford

Prospero revels in a spell of northern exposure

The shipwrecked nobles have washed up in the Arctic or some more metaphoric, spiritually desolate realm in Rupert Goold's new production of The Tempest. During the opening storm, grey waves crash on a huge projection scrim, a radar dial transforms into a porthole-cum-magic circle through which we spy below-decks, then a black screen whirls with white flecks as if charting a tornado or brainwave interference. It's a startling vision, as is the panorama of jagged ice that comprises Prospero's isle and evokes Caspar David Friedrich's bleak painting, The Wreck Of The Hope.

There are some weak links, not least a totally unconvincing, snarling, waddling Caliban and some feeble comedy in the drunken subplot with the upstarts Trinculo and Stephano. But Patrick Stewart, looking as if he's gone native in Alaska (right), is a superb and complex Prospero: a bitterly abusive supremacist, spitting at Caliban, but a tenderly loving as well as domineering father. Mariah Gale is a sweetly gawky Miranda, stiff with isolation yet innocently swift to adore mankind as the play moves towards tricky reconciliations. Shakespeare's late romance is, very clearly here, about people breaking free - children, underdogs and souls preparing to quit this life. Julian Crouch's Ariel is particularly arresting: a cadaverous ghoul, almost Mephistophelean and the embodiment of Death lurking behind the door.

Meanwhile, Michael Boyd restages the Bard's conflict-strewn Henry VI trilogy, initially part of the histories cycle in 2000, now opening the RSC's new 1,000-seat auditorium. The Courtyard is a temporary try-out for a major rebuild of the RST, basically like the wonderful Swan but bigger, with a thrust stage surrounded by a three-storey audience. In the long run, I fear this is too samey, losing the variety of the RST's pros arch. But the space itself - like an aircraft hanger lined with cozy red seats - is exciting, both epic and intimate. And Boyd's production is a vigorous rolling saga with battles fought on swinging ropes and flying ladders. Chuk Iwuji is the wide-eyed, timid, monarch plagued by Katy Stephens's saintly-going-on-slutty Joan of Arc and Jonathan Slinger's fetid, psychotic Richard of Gloucester. Strong ensemble work. KB

The Tempest to 12 Oct; Henry VI to 21 Oct: RSC, Stratford (0870 609 1110)

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