When Sam Mendes's production of The Tempest opened at Stratford last summer, it seemed likely to go down in history as the one in which Ariel, once granted freedom, spat contemptuously in Prospero's face. This climactic outburst has gone from the London transfer, where the tricksy spirit confines himself to a single backward glance full of inscrutable disdain at his former master. Not that the rest of their relationship has exactly softened. Mao-suited, white- faced, eerily inhuman, Simon Russell Beale's mesmeric Ariel still pads about like some alien, cagily superior butler to Alec McCowen's donnish, dapper, damagingly underdriven Prospero.
You can tell there's no love lost from the tiny, insubordinate time-lags Beale's Ariel allows before he attends to commands and from the way the Kohl-rimmed eyes slither with a hint of subversion in that sphinx-like face. It's utterly compelling theatre, but this interpretation of Ariel runs into one grave snag. It drains all conviction from that key moment when the plight of Prospero's victims moves Ariel to a sudden intuition of human compassion, and Prospero, chastened to be reminded of fellow-feeling by a member of another species, shifts from vengeance to mercy. Here, the moment goes for nothing because mild-mannered McCowen has so little to learn on that score and Beale's Ariel would, in any case, be the unlikeliest of tutors.
From scene to scene and effect to effect, this Tempest is a magical experience, with its hypnotic, tinkling music by Shaun Davey. To my mind, though, some of the mystery and meaning of the drama gets lost in Mendes's playfully illusionistic approach to the piece. All the island's a stage from the outset here, with Ariel springing out of a wicker prop basket and unleashing the tempest with a swing of a storm lantern. People are carted on and off in this conveyance, or emerge like actors from behind a Magritte-like screen that's painted in the same fleecy pattern as the cloudscape behind. Like the giant Pollocks toy theatre that houses the masque, it's all good self-referential fun. The objection remains, though, that all the island becomes a stage only towards the end, with Prospero's eventual image of life and theatre dissolving into one another. If everything is announcing itself as 'theatre' from the outset, that perception is pre-empted.
The low-life conspiracy scenes have, if anything, gained in comic bite since Stratford. David Troughton's Caliban is a powerfully arresting mix of thuggish Japanese wrestler and vulnerable dreamer. David Bradley, hilariously turning Trinculo into a lanky northern ventriloquist, here loses his preposterous lookalike dummy, which I don't recall in Stratford. Decked out in stolen regal finery, Bradley reminds you irresistibly of a P G Tips chimp impersonating the Queen Mother.
His sidekick Stephano, played by excellent Mark Lockyer as a buck-toothed, belching cross between Terry Thomas and Sir Les Patterson, at one point endeavours to take a drunken leak into the omnipresent wicker basket, his copious arcs of urine landing everywhere but. An emblem of the production, that: vivid, unforgettable and questionably angled.
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