THE TEMPEST
Nottingham Playhouse
Opened 8 September, 1995

The spectacle of Silviu Purcarete's production begins before the audience has even entered: the King of Naples in his wheelchair and the rest of the party of nobles process through the theatre's bars and lobbies, assembling at the doors to the auditorium to approach the enchantments of the stage. As the rest of us file in, we find the tempest itself in full spate: a bare, sparsely lit stage, occasional eerie blares of music and the Boatswain's lines being whispered to an empty stage by an invisible Ariel.

Spectacle is the keynote of Purcarete's version. It looks magnificent, played on a largely empty stage with a lattice of wires suspended across it. Constant use is made of the Nottingham stage's revolve commenting on the mutability of life on Prospero's isle, representing its supernatural chaos and on occasion just making life difficult for the poor actors who have to counter-rotate themselves in order to keep addressing the same direction. A shimmering blue drape is the only device used to demarcate different spaces onstage, and once or twice breezes across the entire stage acting as a "wipe" behind which performers can exit invisibly. Characters referred to whilst absent from the main action periodically appear in tableau in a dimly-lit upstage closet.

Ariel is represented on the one hand by several mute, half-masked figures in breeches and wigs who shamble across the stage, sometimes playing haunting string quartets; on the other, by whispered tapes of Michael Fitzgerald, who plays Prospero this Ariel is truly Prospero's creature, and the mage's increasing grief at liberating his spirit is intensified because he is bidding farewell to a part of himself. Incredibly, the multitude of tape cues are seldom less than precisely executed.

But, whilst the eye is being ravished and the ear lulled by Vasile Sirli's ethereal score (reminiscent of Laurie Anderson's "Angel Fragments" for the film Wings Of Desire), the brain is all too often fuddled. Purcarete relies on images to drive the narrative; lines are almost invariably delivered in over-actorly declamations, which both obscure their sense and mar the Shakespearean music.

Fitzgerald largely remains in control of Prospero's speeches until the end draws nigh; as the hour approaches at which he must relinquish control of his little world, his composure flees, and the epilogue is delivered by a whimpering wreck of a man. Saira Todd's Miranda is called upon to convey too much wonder too often, and as Caliban a hulking infant in a nappy-like dhoti, given to curling up in moments of stress into the foetal position Gheorghe Ilie sadly fights a losing battle with vocal clarity. Most cripplingly, the production simply has the pace of a rheumatic basset-hound; what is no doubt intended to be stately simply comes over as leaden.

Purcarete has tried to communicate the magicality of The Tempest in a manner which diminishes the tale itself. His noble intentions, intelligence and thoroughness shine through a production which is superficially beautiful, but in the end fails to enchant.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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