THEATRE / Typhoon from the East: Paul Taylor finds Yukio Ninagawa's production of The Tempest stronger than ever

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THERE'S no business like Noh business - especially, it seems, on the tiny island of Sado. It was to this Japanese equivalent of Siberia that Zeami, the 15th-century actor-playwright who established the Noh tradition, was banished by the Shogun. And it is to this same place of exile that the director, Yukio Ninagawa has spirited his sumptuous, moving vision of The Tempest.

Today there are some 35 Noh theatres on the island, many of which are still used by the inhabitants. Ninagawa's perspective-multiplying conceit is to stage Shakespeare's tragi-comedy as though it were the dress-rehearsal of a version put on by local amateurs. Before the play proper begins, we see the thesps limbering up below the wooden raised platform of the Noh stage with its thatched, temple-like roof. Technicians and stagehands in black sweatshirts rush about their business or stand and watch as, to clamorous drumming, a masked pantomime bull struts its stuff. Then, Haruhiko Joh, who plays a weird shifting palimpsest of roles - the contemporary director, Shakespeare's exiled duke and (implicitly) the Prospero-like figure of Zeami - gathers the cast around him and smacks the play alive with a summary clap of his hands.

Through the first half, you may at times wonder whether this concept is more confining than enabling. From the opening scene, where the storm is spectacularly evoked with violently fluttering sheets, flying mariners, and the thundering prow of a galleon, it's certainly a puzzle as to how this amateur group has managed to get its hands on such huge resources. Have they, perhaps, some blackmailing hold over the top brass at Sony? More seriously, you worry that in confessing from the start that it's all illusion, the production will steal the thunder from Prospero's sobering identification of the real world and the play-world at the end of the masque. When not performing, Joh sits directorially at the side following with the text. Given his overlapping functions, this blurs our sense of Prospero's crucial, ambiguous absence from, say, the scene in which Antonio and Sebastian are kept awake and plot to kill the sleeping Alonso. Did Prospero authorise this temptation? In the play, it's kept a dark mystery. In the production, you could well lose sight of this.

What you never lose sight of is Ninagawa's awesome gift for fusing oriental and occidental traditions in an atmosphere of piercing, elegiac beauty. To the clash of Noh percussion, for example, a western soprano voice weaves hauntingly through the masque in which stiffly hieratic, masked and howling female impersonators (who play Iris, Ceres and Juno) partner reapers who resemble antic haystacks.

When this production was first seen at the 1988 Edinburgh Festival, ravishing ritual seemed to have upstaged the drama, particularly in relation to Prospero. Now, the tormented complexity of the hero is better registered. Radiating a sense of heart-stricken isolation, Joh makes to strike Yoji Matsuda's Ariel with his wand just before the spirit's touching, educative declaration of empathy with human compassion. The forces against Prospero never convince you of their danger: Caliban is a somersaulting half-punk, half- mermaid and the 'men of sin' make more impact as a circling tableau vivant immobilised by Prospero's magic, than when they are capable of mischief. All the same, you feel this time that the hero's dilemma (forgiveness or vengeance?) is a genuinely painful choice.

Lending the moment a matchlessly hushed intensity, all the Sado company gather to hear Prospero's 'Ye elves of hill, brooks' etc speech, and you realise that, stealthily, the play world has engulfed the lot of them. So when this Prospero / Zeami / director breaks his wand, he also has to relinquish the strong magic of Shakespeare's text which flutters poignantly, like so many shed leaves, to the floor.

Barbican Box Office (071 638 8891).

(Photograph omitted)