Opened 18 January, 2001

The Royal Shakespeare Company's touring Tempest directed by James MacDonald, which I saw in Macclesfield, has much to commend it in terms of thoughtfulness, but little emotion and still less wonder.

MacDonald and designer Jeremy Herbert choose to let us see (so to speak) the strings which operate the presentation, to match the way in which a medium-sized theatre space is visibly constructed in the sports halls which constitute most of the tour's venues. We are shown everything from the thunder-sheet used periodically to the singers who supply Orlando Gough's a capella vocalise arrangements as they stand around the edge of the undulating, bare white playing area. It is an admirable approach, but not with a play whose every textual and narrative fibre is magic. Where, in Jonathan Kent's magnificent current Almeida production, Aidan Gillen's Ariel disappears underwater only to descend mysteriously from the flies moments later, Gilz Terera here is a brisk, grey-suited aide-de-camp. Muffed, too, is the potential of the CGI projections onto the backdrop which curves continuously up from the stage itself; it's a powerful touch to have music and images stop suddenly when Prospero breaks his staff, but more than thrown away when both start up again half a minute later.

The characterisation of the shipwrecked nobles the only aspect in which I felt Kent's production to be less than magnificent is here nicely carried off. Robert Langdon Lloyd's Gonzalo seems consistently vexed rather than the conventional amiable old buffer, and Antony Byrne as Prospero's usurping brother Antonio pulls off the feat of making all those tiresome witticisms sound natural while at the same time never coming within several yards of a smile. James Saxon's drunken Stephano, too, has the comic rumpled dignity of the huge man. Philip Voss's Prospero is a loving father in the exposition scene, whose rebukes to Miranda (Nikki Amuka-Bird) for not listening are gentle and clearly made to cover up his own distraction; towards the end, too, he grows graver, perhaps apprehensive at the imminence of abjuring his magical powers. Voss's physical and above all vocal presence are also considerable.

All of these, however, are points of intellectual appreciation rather than outright enjoyment of the play's "rough magic", and they add up to little more than journeyman efficiency. In terms of sheer dramatic power, the Almeida Tempest trounces MacDonald's, which is also longer by an interval and half an hour of playing time, and feels it. The many pauses in spoken delivery give only the appearance of sonority whilst in fact simply slowing things down. Even the opening tempest itself seems outright sluggish. Once again, following the tussle of As You Like Its last year, the RSC goes head to head with another production of the same play and comes off second best on its supposed home turf; coincidence, to be sure, but embarrassing coincidence.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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