First Night: McKellen works his magic on enchanted isle

The Tempest West Yorkshire Playhouse Leeds
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QUITE A big day, one way and another, for Sir Ian McKellen. In the afternoon he received the news he had been Oscar-nominated in the Best Actor category for Gods And Monsters. In the evening he triumphantly took to the stage as Prospero at the opening of Jude Kelly's production of The Tempest, a play with its fair share of monsters and gods.

It is the third and last event in the West Yorkshire Playhouse's experiment in scheduling a season of drama with a resident company. McKellen has just finished portraying Garry Essendine, that arch-control freak and Noel Coward's alter ego in Present Laughter. This succession of roles alerts you to just how much of a control freak the magician Prospero is.

Glamourwise, McKellen's Prospero is at the opposite end of the scale from the silk dressing-gowned Garry. In his cardigan, straw hat and bare shins, he resembles a day-tripper to Bognor fallen on hard times. The enchanted island is here re-imagined as a derelict correctional unit.

As he enters, McKellen adds another chalk mark to the high black walls, as though counting off the days of his exile as a prisoner might. In an exquisitely calibrated, low-key performance, he conveys to perfection the struggle in Prospero between manipulative rage at his shipwrecked enemies and an uneasy underlying conviction that the original wrongs done to him may have been partly his fault. Even at the zenith of his power, this Prospero delivers the rousing "Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes etc" speech in the touching tones of a headmaster who has privately resigned but needs to keep up appearances at assembly.

If the emotions in this production are real, most of the decor is pure plastic: such sheeting creates wigwams for the spirits in the celestial mask and the huge wings that tumble like a cataract from the lofty Ariel when he confronts the men of sin. The casting of actresses as these latter characters does not work: their scenes come over too much like a butch fancy- dress party. But the rest of the production exerts a potent, if studiedly uncharming magic.

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