Theatre Review: A Tempest off stage

The Tempest/Cymbeline, RSC

Theatre: The Tempest /

Cymbeline

RSC

The isle is full of noises? The aisle is full of The Tempest in Adrian Noble's new production at Stratford. Great play is made of a ramp which leads right out into the audience and through to the back exit. Scott Handy's loinclothed, white-painted weirdo of an Ariel lures the mesmerised, unwitting shipwrecked courtiers up and down this route. Stationed halfway along it, David Calder's fiercely intelligent Prospero observes the budding romance between his daughter and the son of an enemy from the same perspective as the audience, and its in this spot that the young couple watch the aborted masque.

Followers of the RSC might be tempted to see this as a sort of rueful in-joke. The main stage at Stratford has, after all, not been the happiest area, creatively speaking, of late. Its ironic that the best recent Shakespeare production there - Nobel's own Cymbeline - was of a play that, magnificent though it is, is not exactly a crowd puller. Many other efforts have been routine and dismal: either bored novelty-for-novelty's-sake (like the current Twelfth Night) or echoing empty middle-of-the-road fare (like the current Merchant of Venice). A radical rethink of the space and of the actor / spectator relationship seems called for, or failing that, mainstage productions that get off the main stage as much as possible like this Tempest.

But its not just because it goes walkabout that Nobel's new production proves aesthetically and emotionally satisfying. True, some of the spectacle is a bit naff; for example, moving around, encased in sewn-up rectangles of purplish cloth, the spirits perform in a manner suggestive of some avant-garde advertisement for teabags. The proceedings are given a compelling emotional unity, though, by David Calder - an actor born to play Prospero - as a troubled, self-divided mage.

There's a gone-through-the-mill, lived-in quality about Calder, a vehemence that always looks poised to curdle into angry disgust (as witness his current Sir Toby Belch). He is adept at capturing glinting dangerous visionaries (as witness his Captain Ahab). Put the two together, and add the ability to hint at miles of human hinterland with the cock of an eyebrow, and you have a very powerful Prospero.

As he tacks between determination and lapses into uncertainty, Calder's hero retains the capacity to catch you off guard. I've never been more startled by the famous moment where Prospero renounces magic by breaking his staff. Calder has this object jauntily slung across his shoulders as, chuckling a bit defensively, he watches Ariel (whom he has just freed) loping off down the ramp. Then, on a sudden half-beat, he snaps the staff - a thrilling moment because you can see that this Prospero has had to take himself unawares to be able to perform this momentous act at all.

Forgiveness, which comes hard in The Tempest - a late play - comes a bit too easily in Shakespeare's early comedy, The Two Gentleman of Verona, revived now in a stylish, enjoyable and well-pondered modern dress revival in the Swan by Edward Hall. Maybe the playful way it stresses the Italian setting is overdone at points, but it has, in Dominic Rowan's Proteus, a most attractive and skilful account of darkly comic, uneasy bad faith from a young actor who has a faint touch of Cary Grant.

The test of any production of Two Gents is how its negotiates the notorious queasy sequence where a character, who has just caught his best pal about to rape his girlfriend, actually offers him the girlfriend to prove that he's man enough to accept apologies from a mate. Hall gets round this by emphasising that everyone is behaving in a state of shock and, in a play that at times uncharacteristically sidelines females - by allowing the final spotlight to fall on a touching embrace between the two gentlewomen of Verona.

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