Where Derek Jacobi's Prospero in the recent Sheffield Tempest (reviewed on this page last month) was a man in late middle age pondering his imminent twilight years, Richard Briers is an elderly mage facing the same decline as a much more immediate prospect, even as a phase already commenced. Excellent and richly nuanced as Jacobi's performance was, there is something more intuitively empathic about Briers'.
Patrick Mason's production for the Theatre Royal, Plymouth (now touring under the aegis of Thelma Holt) has a number of strengths, of which Briers is the foremost. He has the gift of combining a naturalistic speed in delivery with full communication of the linguistic and poetic sense. When he slows down, his Prospero is not so much chin-stroking as wool-gathering; when he waxes angry, he is palpably raging against the too-close dying of the light. His is not a graciously melancholy self-effacement in favour of Ferdinand and Miranda's youth but that of a man who, after settling his old scores in his sorcerous way, has nothing left.
However, elsewhere Mason's production is perplexingly erratic. Almost every other plus point is somehow stymied. Ben Silverstone is a talented young actor, and his Ariel is an intriguing creation: cowed by Prospero's tongue-lashings rather than by any magical torment, the sprite compulsively plucks at the air with his fingers, and in the end overtakes his master in terms of compassion as Prospero, about to strike his usurping brother Antonio in the final scene, is arrested by a gesture from Ariel behind him. Yet Silverstone and the play alike are crippled by the decision that all the ethereal songs (except that in the masque sequence) are to be delivered in a fey manner of spoken recital, almost of the musical school of William Shatner.
Crispin Redman's Antonio is rivetingly Iagoesque in his villainy until, in that same final scene, he has nothing to do but glower and sneer mutely, devoid of all his erstwhile potency. Rory Kinnear's Caliban never synthesizes the tyrannised and indubitably human elements of his reading with the monstrous, drunken ululations of the shambling rebel. Madeleine Worrall brings too little depth, too late, to the role of Miranda, and as her beloved Ferdinand, Orlando Wells does such a good job of establishing himself as a self-consciously posturing youth (the hero of his own script) that he doesn't pull off the transition into a genuinely loving young man and so remains a dubious match for the daughter of Prospero. At least Darren Tunstall's vaudevillian Trinculo is no departure from that actor's happy knack of being the funniest thing in a production.
The Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford, being smaller than other venues on the tour, cannot accommodate the technical and design aspects of the production in full. This does not detract from the evening, but what remains is the incomprehensible symbolism of Francis O'Connor's set: a midnight-blue tiled cube with geometrical patterns of twinkling lights. It all makes for an evening which is often frustrating, occasionally (though too seldom) magical, but in Briers' central performance, gloriously human and life-affirming even as that little life is about to be rounded with a sleep.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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