The Tempest, Theater Royal, Bath review

The opening production from Theater Royal, Bath’s Ustinov Studio’s new artistic director Deborah Warner offers dazzling theater at times, and comparatively disappointing moments of flatness at others. Could the small space, providing intimacy one moment and a feeling of being cramped at others have something to do with it?

The set by Austrian designer Christof Hetzer is wonderfully ingenious: a surprisingly utilitarian collection of asymmetrical panels, some of which reflect the light and others offer the illusion of space, are augmented by ingenious lighting from Jean Kalman, video from Torge Møller, and sound design from Mel Mercier. The setting has a feeling of having been thrown together, and yet comes alive over and over, corresponding with one of the essential themes of the play, the capacity for the imagination to transform the world, as well as evoke the illusory nature of reality. A dance of energy and pixels – an ingenious translation of the Hindu idea of Maya, the web of illusion that holds the world together – is projected on the stones that suggest the sea shore, bringing them to life, as well as on Ariel’s body, that feels as insubstantial as the dreams that glitter tantalisingly at the heart of the play. These diverse elements go some way to invoking an enchanted world.

Dickie Beau, as Ariel, the spirit conjured by Prospero, banished “right king of Naples”, is undeniably one of the stars of the show – with a body language equal to his evanescence, and an electronically manipulated voice that switches between angelic countertenor and demonic baritone He brings to the part a mixture of touching vulnerability and mercurial cunning. He is perhaps the actor in the production who displays most depth and subtlety, embodying the shape-shifting core of the play with great skill.It takes the combination of Beau’s performance, the set, music, lighting and video to raise the production above the disappointingly half-magical quality of the whole. Nicholas Woodeson’s Prospero (pictured above with Dickie Beau as Ariel) is a sympathetic enough sorcerer, capable of sudden outbursts of vengeful emotion as well as a proud father’s fondness for his daughter Miranda. His presence, however, lacks the charisma and conviction that would make the deposed King of Naples’s remarkable shamanic powers credible. At the very center of this play, enacting the magic of make-believe and creation, Prospero must convince us of his own powers and suspend our disbelief. Woodeson manages at times and yet often falls short of communicating the power to change the world.

Tanyi Virmani (Miranda), fresh out of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre, embodies well the innocence of an adolescent who has grown up on an island, away from the machinations and posturing of the royal courts. She relies on too much wide-eyed astonishment, a performance that she wears thin after a while. The ship-wrecked nobility of Milan and Naples are well cast, wandering around bewildered or tempted by treachery, but the actors rarely rise above mere competence.

The Tempest is a tight-rope walk of a play, the artistic choices that have to be made close to impossible. In this case, it is as if Deborah Warner had been more inclined to depict, often in very graphic terms, the bestiality and monstrosity of Caliban (Edward Hogg), and the two comic characters from the shipwrecked boat, Trinculo (Stepen Kennedy) and Stephano (Gary Sefton, main picture) than the complex stories of treason, betrayal and romance that form the core narrative of the play – let alone the poetic layers of a story that draw the audience into a meditation on the imagination, theater and illusion. The comic scenes are superbly done, the actors pitch perfect, and very funny indeed. There are borderline shocking bodily fluids in profusion, and brash erotic play, which Warner coaxes from the three with great brio.

These moments glitter with so much cartoon-style fun that the rest of the production feels pale in comparison. The three men, extreme clowns in the worst of taste, inevitably steal the show: they provide a hilarious riff on monstrosity, but at the expense of feeling the more spiritual magic at the heart of the play. The thrill of their performance provides – more than Prospero and Ariel’s manipulations of consciousness – a demonstration of theater’s ability to take us on a trip, one of the themes of The Tempest‘s remarkably profound play on the stuff of make-believe.

The theme of forgiveness is central to the play. It should provide the sweetest of resolutions and yet, in this production, there is a singular lack of emotion, reflecting perhaps an excessive concern with the mechanics of the story as well as let down by the display of undeniable technical brilliance: magic stripped, much of the time, of a necessary dimension of humanity.

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