THEATRE / Rough magic: Paul Taylor reviews Alec McCowen and Simon Russell Beale in a new Tempest in Stratford

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A JUTTING stage of bare wooden planks; a huge, blood-red harvest moon; and behind the indigo semi-circular scrim at the back, precarious ziggurats of weighty tomes, evidently the property of that bookworm Prospero (famously not confined on his desert island to the Bible and Shakespeare). Finally, smack at the centre of the scene, hogging the limelight, there's a wicker theatrical skip.

Sam Mendes's striking account of The Tempest jerks into life when Simon Russell Beale's Ariel springs, jack-in-the-box-like, from this basket and claps his hands.

A storm lantern descends to the summons whereupon the tricksy spirit initiates the tempest and The Tempest by setting the lamp swinging, his kohl-rimmed eyes following the wide arcs it makes with the unnerving dispassion of a cat watching the twitches of a butterfly.

This opening moment is very much the shape of things to come - magical, witty, but also stimulating a certain amount of dissent. After all, to be so upfront about the origin of the turbulence and to reveal Prospero viewing his storm-tossed enemies from the lofty eminence of a great step-ladder could be regarded as unduly pre-emptive.

It disregards the way Shakespeare pointedly misleads expectation, plunging us into a naturalistic scene of shipwreck (with no clue as to its cause) only to make the play's subsequent shift to the magician's island and away from that kind of realism all the stranger.

True, most people know the story already, but this doesn't prevent an audience from allowing its emotions to go along with Shakespeare's sequence. More worrying, though, is the way the production starts commenting on the theatricality of the proceedings from the word go. It's one thing for Judy Garland in A Star Is Born to sing how she was 'born in a trunk in the Princess Theatre in Pocatello, Idaho' because she's supposed to have vaudeville and showbiz running through her veins. It's quite another for Ariel to be born from a theatrical skip in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford.

Indeed if there is to be any force to Prospero's eventual image of life and theatre dissolving into each other, both sadly temporary and insubstantial, then there's got to be something that is not theatre for the theatre-metaphor to engulf. You lose sight of that here, where the shipwrecked courtiers tend to materialise like a disoriented cast of thesps from behind a sky-painted screen and where David Troughton's excellent Caliban and the low-life conspirators are dragged on and off the stage in the cramped conveyance of the theatrical skip.

In putting Ariel right at the heart of things, the opening sequence is again indicative of the production's priorities throughout. While it wouldn't altogether be fair to retitle the show Ariel Pulls It Off, Simon Russell Beale's mesmeric performance as the spirit certainly seizes some of the dramatic supremacy from Alec McCowen's underpowered, insufficiently riven Prospero, who here emerges as a donnish, avuncular, mildly eccentric figure - a conjuror who'd go down well at a children's party but not a man who would have to struggle desperately to conquer vengeful desires. It's Russell Beale's Ariel who looks as though he could turn decidedly nasty. His far from sylph-like form crammed into a blue silk Mao suit, he pads about barefoot making 90-degree turns and looking like a Stepford Wives equivalent of Wishee Washee. God knows what his mind is picking up on its far-flung frequencies, but the beady, remote hauteur of his stare suggest that, compared with him, Jeeves is in the grip of a gibbering inferiority complex. There are some eerily comic moments when this Ariel drops his prayerful, hands-raised, spirit-summoning pose and waits, with an inscrutable hint of insolent impatience, while Prospero offloads a thought or two on such subjects as the spirit's promised freedom.

The frissons of fear Russell Beale imparts become full-scale horror when, with harpy hands trailing streamers of blood, he crashes up through the table at the false banquet, a baleful-voiced party-pooper. Only when he sings in a beautiful tenor does he seem to understand anything about human feeling.

He's an Ariel who spits in Prospero's face as a leaving present, an outcome hinted at earlier in the blinking, outraged pride he transmits when reminded that he needed to be freed by Prospero from the magic of Sycorax and in the superb way that, when Prospero strokes his cheek near the end, he conveys that the gesture is both a presumption and at some level desired.

The low-life conspiracy scenes are given the funniest treatment I can recall. David Bradley turns Trinculo into a hilariously jittery ventriloquist with dyed carroty hair, woebegone Northern vowels, Little Titch shoes and a dummy who is his double. Somehow, this muttering wooden creature comically contrives to make Trinculo seem all the lonelier and it allows a wonderful perplexed moment when Ariel, to confuse this group, throws his voice through the doll.

In the production's Pollock's Toy Theatre version of the inset masque, the sunburnt reapers suddenly reveal themselves, to Prospero's conscience-stricken view, to be the conspirators he'd forgotten about - a vivid way of dramatising why he puts a sudden, bad-tempered end to these theatricals.

The low comedy seems to have been thought through more carefully than the scenes with the shipwrecked court. Some of the depth and mystery is plucked from the heart of the play, for example, by making it overwhelmingly plain that Prospero engineers the circumstances in which the 'men of sin' are tempted to fresh villainy. Is it so clear, in the text, that the magician has here rigged his own experiment? And while Mendes and team make some of the trickier moments look like plain sailing it is in one or two of the simpler, but crucial aspects of the play, that this memorable Tempest doesn't quite take the heart or mind by storm.

Continues in rep (0789 295623).

(Photographs omitted)