Theatre: It'll go down a storm in Milan

The Tempest Lyric Studio Hammersmith, London
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The Independent Culture
IN HIS show Elsinore, Robert Lepage turned Hamlet into a high- tech solo turn. So by comparison, ATC's new electronic remix version of The Tempest - which boasts a cast of three - looks positively congested. But where Lepage trivialised Shakespeare's tragedy - reducing it to a multimedia stunt with a Hamlet who resembled Peter Sellers in the middle of a chronic identity crisis - Nick Philippou and ATC perform an arresting job of defamiliarisation on this much-produced late play, renewing the sense of a sea change into something rich and strange.

The priorities of this adaptation are aesthetic rather than political: it's just about as far as possible from Une Tempete, Aime Cesaire's colonialist deconstruction of the original staged at The Gate last year. Here, Prospero is played by Rose English in drag, with a skull cap and flagrantly false black beard that gives her a look of Joanna Lumley crossed with Fu Man Chu: revealing himself at the end, this Prospero peels off his magician's outfit and is seen to be wearing an elegant black-beaded evening frock. Most impracticable for a desert island, this attire will doubtless go down a storm when he returns to Milan, the home, after all, of vertiginously high couture.

In between times, English's Prospero sits supervising the shipwreck and its consequences at a long trestle table which, when he beats it with his fingertips, lights up blue or orange from below to represent either sea or sand. Speaking into a face mike that makes the words trail in ghostly diffraction, he intones the lines: "I wish mine eyes/Would with themselves, shut up my thoughts". In the original, that speech is delivered by Alonso. Its transfer to Prospero here is significant. It's as though the experiences in the play have already happened and that the magician keeps being jerked awake by the implacable memory of them. What we get, therefore, is not so much The Tempest as the play folded in on itself in a series of haunting allusions and artful simultaneities.

The studied dream-like repetitions (from the start, Prospero keeps reverting to the lines "These our actors/As I foretold you, were all spirits, and/Are melted into air, into thin air" are reinforced by the hypnotic insistence of Laurie Anderson's synthesised music. In this mentally internalised Tempest, which lasts 80 minutes, our revels are ended, mysteriously, before they have even begun.

Which, of course, robs the original of what little tension it has in the first place. As a poetic meditation on the play though, the evening succeeds - the staging ideas, bizarre on the face of it, have a potent imaginative validity. The shipwrecked courtiers, for example, are represented by glass jars in which drawings of their faces float in water; a device which suggests both the preserved, pickled nature of Prospero's resentment and, more hopefully, messages in a bottle.

There is much use of filmed-on-the-spot video close-up. Indicating that Caliban as much as Miranda is Prospero's paternal responsibility, it is the mouth of Kate Alderton's cartoonily naive heroine that is flashed up in hideous black-and-white close-up - prompting thoughts of the jabbering mouth in Beckett's Not I - when the monster screeches his remonstrations at the magician.

A purist's nightmare; a tonic for the open-minded.

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