The Tempest, Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Spirits, sorcery and star quality

Michael Coveney
Monday 23 February 2009 01:00

The Tempest, Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Wrecks, Bush Theatre, London

Spirits, sorcery and star quality

By Michael Coveney

‘The isle is full of noises; sounds, and sweet airs that give delight, and hurt not.” Rarely has Caliban’s description of his homeland reverberated so justly. This compelling collaboration between the RSC and the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town is set on an African outpost populated by colourful spirits, carnival animals and magically-manipulated puppets.

And the master of ceremonies, Antony Sher’s grizzled, Biblically-bearded Prospero, is not the usual cranky old outcast conjuring his enemies to wreak his revenge, but a colonial tyrant who is creating a despotic regime that will absorb them; this crucial strand in Janice Honeyman’s production pairs Sher with a glowering, resentful Caliban played by the great John Kani as a beggarly village elder biding his time: “This island’s mine.”

Without any strain at all, the play becomes a detailed study in the transition of power, something that happens almost in real time and for once makes complete sense of the urgency in Prospero’s long explanatory lecture to his innocent daughter, Miranda (a beautiful portrait of rapidly-flowering experience by Tinarie Van Wyk Loots).

The show’s physical propulsion starts with a lantern-lit, swaying serpent which, according to Zulu cosmology, might cause cyclonic turbulence in the weather. Caliban is at first tethered to a rock, but the spirits are taking charge, commanded by Prospero to encase Atandwa Kani’s lithe and body-painted Ariel in the cloven pine, and Sycorax invoked in puppet parts and poles with matted straw topknots.

In Prospero’s cell, Sher studies his great volume of spells and sorcery with the fervour he once lavished on his maps and charts as Astrov in Uncle Vanya. The casting of the ship-wrecked party of crisply-suited usurpers and the unfunny Stephano and Trinculo don’t quite measure up. But the overall impact is irresistible, with Miranda paired off with Charlie Keegan’s muscular Ferdinand, and Sher delivering his final plea for liberation not to the audience but to his rightful successor in this sun-baked paradise, Kani’s charismatic, Mandela-like Caliban.

Neil LaBute might have pinched a sub-title from Harold Pinter for Wrecks, a monologue delivered by a cigarette-smoking businessman by the side of his dead wife’s coffin in a funeral parlour. But whereas Pinter’s dream-like Ashes to Ashes suggests a world of sexual power and political repression, LaBute rubs our noses in the dust of mortality.

He does so with his usual black disregard for the niceties of social, let alone sexual, intercourse, and his play – here receiving its European premiere in a production by Josie Rourke – is most skilfully delivered by Robert Glenister, with a faint veneer of seediness. Glenister’s Edward Carr lopes around the coffin, rehearsing an elegy to his wife.

She, Mary Josephine Carr, was a pillar of society, 15 years older than he, a foster child from Idaho, already the mother of two boys by an obnoxious businessman called Ulrich. They met at a grand ball and started an affair, reared two more children of their own and became closer through her illness.

You may see where this is going when I say there was a car crash and that the final days of their relationship were transformed by the release of a terrible secret. Carr’s days are also numbered by illness, so his speech shades in tone from celebration to biographical valedictory. But LaBute and Glenister keep the tone conversational, even if the revelations feel like a bit of a cheat and the whole funeral parlour set-up is a little low-rent for so big deal a dame.

Maybe that’s the point. The show’s still a bit on the thin side; surely it’s time we started getting back to the idea of a double-bill. Let’s have more value for money, even on the fringe.

‘The Tempest’: to 14 March, then touring (0844 800 1110;

‘Wrecks’ to 28 March (020 8743 5050;

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