In Max Stafford-Clark's rapid, fiercely detailed production, you want to keep an eye on what each character is up to. It's not just what people say, it's the glimpses of inner lives - who listens, who yawns, who tugs at their wedding ring - that matter. Even the off-stage characters - Natasha's children and her new boyfriend, Protopopov - make their presence strongly felt.
The atmosphere in the Prozorov household is urgent and precise. The characters may suffer from boredom, loss and self-absorption, but they attack it with petulance, candour and quixotic behaviour. Entrances usher in sharp, new moods, like sudden changes in the weather. Seeing this from the stalls of the Bristol Old Vic you felt you were in the same room, breathing the same fraught air as the characters.
Watching the finely graded changes this cast bring to their char- acters over the play's three years is like flicking through a family album. One page on its own would be virtually meaningless. We see the sisters' brother, Andrei (David Fielder) gradually sour; the bright, insensitive Kulygin (Brian Protheroe) turn an increasingly blind eye to his marriage, and the vigorous, muscular Vershinin (Nigel Terry) break Masha's heart, then leave.
The two younger sisters are excellent - the snappy, aloof Masha (Catherine Russell) and the warmer, idealistic Irina (Kate Ashfield) look as if they grew up together. The only person who doesn't feel at home in this provincial town is the famous import from TV. It was always risky casting Anita Dobson as the eldest of the sisters. She looks constrained by the dry, buttoned- up Olga, as if she and the character had not yet found a way of getting along. In an evening which holds many moments of truth, the trickiest one is when she complains that she is 28.
Monsieur Amilcar, a revived French play by Yves Jamiaque, has a neat comic premise. A Parisian businessman has devoted his life to making money. He has no wife, no friends and no children. So he goes out and hires an actress as his wife (Penelope Keith), a street vendor as his daughter (Lois Harvey) and an unemployed artist as his best friend (Ben Aris). The pay is good and they only need to work from 5pm to 9am. But how does he want his ideal family to behave?
Monsieur Amilcar is unusual, in that there is no level at which you believe in any of it. The tone is set by the excessively Sixties setting of a plush white carpet, curly Perspex chairs and glass table, mounted on silver balls. The casting is equally improbable. You watch Penelope Keith and think here is a famous actress playing an unknown actress playing a non- existent wife. Yet her stage persona is so strong that her putative characters hardly get a look-in. As M Amilcar, Keith Michell looks very elegant in his full-length dressing gown and embroidered slippers, and clearly enjoys raising his eyebrows, widening his eyes and letting sentences trail off like wisps of smoke. But here's another mystery. The one character not required to perform is played by an actor who is happiest doing just the opposite.
It doesn't take long to establish that Jamiaque flirts with ideas without taking any real interest in them. There is very little to hang on to, and the games he plays about what is and isn't true finally leave you not caring. Nor does Tim Luscombe's production convince us that a play written with conspicuous curtain-lines and scene changes was cut out for a studio venue like the Minerva. Michell concludes the failed dinner- party scene by operatically sweeping the cutlery on to the floor. In the blackout, stagehands rush on and pick up each piece of cutlery. There's something about the quick, diligent way they do this that reminds us what has been missing. A bit of ordinary life.
In the new production of The Tempest by the acclaimed Romanian director, Silviu Purcarete, the storm brews up while the audience are in the foyer. Enter the auditorium and you see an almost empty stage, with the distant figure of Prospero (Michael Fitzgerald). There are no masters, no boatswains, no mariners, no top-sails and no top-masts. There is only a whispered voice-over on the loudspeakers by Fitzgerald. Since he plays both Prospero and the voice of Ariel, the whole play may be taking place in his mind. So as you search for your seat, you look at an almost empty stage and listen to a barely audible voice-over. Depending on your temperament, you may find this version of the storm to be boldy theatrical or simply fairly heavy weather.
Ariel remains invisible till the end. But his spirit is embodied by musicians in billowing wigs, sleeves and cravats, who hover around the scenes with violins and cellos. This isle is full of music by the Romanian Vasile Sirli. I feel confident that if Shakespeare had wanted this much music he would have written a libretto. Not only does it compete with the verse for attention, forcing the actors to declaim, but it spreads a general emotional wash over specific, developing thoughts.
Purcarete's production imprints itself on the mind with its oustandingly original images. Alonso and his court crawl round the island in vests, braces and garters, following an empty wheelchair. Caliban's mother, Sycorax, appears as the huge top half of a skeleton. The masque is performed behind a curtain. We see Ferdinand and Miranda watching it but don't see it ourselves. Yes, it amounts to a wholesale reappraisal of the The Tempest, but it's curiously detached and unmoving. You are left feeling that you have watched a dazzling commentary on the play, and not the play itself.
`Three Sisters': Bristol Old Vic (0117 987 7877), to 7 Oct, then touring; `M Amilcar': Chichester Minerva (01243 781312), to 14 Oct; `The Tempest': Nottingham Playhouse (0115 941 9419), to Sat, then touring.Reuse content