Theatre: Gods and monsters, we've got 'em
Thursday 11 February 1999
WEST YORKSHIRE PLAYHOUSE
TUESDAY WAS quite a big day, one way and another, for Sir Ian McKellen. In the afternoon, he received the news that he had been Oscar- nominated for Gods and Monsters. In the evening, he triumphantly took to the stage as Prospero at the opening of Jude Kelly's production of The Tempest, a play that has, of course, its fair share of monsters and gods. How do you cap that in a 24-hour spree? Discover that the Blessed Virgin has touched down in your dressing-room for a post-show Horlicks and is shyly waving her autograph book in your direction...?
The Tempest is the third and last event in the West Yorkshire Playhouse's vividly successful experiment in scheduling a season of drama with a resident company. One of the great benefits of seeing the same actors in a range of works is that it encourages you to notice sly connections and contrasts between the plays. McKellen, for example, has just finished portraying Garry Essendine, that arch control freak and Noel Coward's alter ego in Present Laughter. This succession of roles alerts you to just how much of a control freak the magician Prospero is.
Glamour-wise, McKellen's Prospero is at the opposite end of the scale from the silk-dressing-gowned Garry. In his tatty cardigan, battered straw hat and bare white shins, he resembles a day-tripper to Bognor who has fallen on hard times. But then, with its filthy underfoot sheeting and dangling swags of iron chains, the enchanted island is here re-imagined as a bleakly derelict correctional institute. As he enters, McKellen adds another chalk mark to the wall, as though counting off the days of his exile.
In an exquisitely calibrated, low-key performance he conveys to perfection the struggle in Prospero between manipulative rage at his shipwrecked enemies and an uneasy underlying conviction that the original wrongs done to him may have been partly his fault. Even at the zenith of his power, he delivers the rousing "Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes..." speech in the touching, disarrayed tones of a headmaster who has privately handed in his resignation but needs to keep up appearances at assembly.
If the emotions in this production are real, most of the decor is pure plastic: such sheeting creates, among other things, wigwams for the spirits in the celestial masque and the huge wings that tumble like a cataract from the lofty Ariel when he confronts the men of sin. The casting of actresses as these latter does not work: their scenes come over too much like a butch fancy-dress party. Consequently, the crucial episode where the primary usurpation is so nearly re-enacted goes for little, and the performers playing Stephano and Trinculo lack the comic presence to sell the slapstick routines. But the rest of the production exerts a potent, if studiedly uncharming, spell.
A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper
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