Magazine article The Spectator

Stormy Weather

Magazine article The Spectator

Stormy Weather

Article excerpt

There can seldom if ever have been such a spectacular start to The Tempest: as the storm breaks, a seaman high on a mast is deluged with several hundred gallons of water which then turns the stage of the Almeida into a lake. The theatre itself is now to undergo a two-year rebuilding project, and Jonathan Kent, the director who turned the old Gainsborough movie studios into a grass-growing field for the Ralph Fiennes Richard II this summer, has again gone for a breathtaking visual effect, one which would not have been possible if the Almeida, like the Gainsborough, were not to be demolished anyway.

It has to be said, however, that nothing in this Tempest quite lives up to that brilliant opening on Paul Brown's waterlogged set; Ian McDiarmid is an academic, disgruntled, weary Prospero, wonderful at suggesting the old magician's despair and anger and disillusion, but oddly unable to explore his love for his daughter or his relationship with Ariel. When, therefore, he breaks his staff and bids us farewell on behalf of Shakespeare himself, we find it difficult to care that the old, cranky, academic exile has found himself at last a kind of peace. Along the way there are some brilliant, momentary insights into the text, but, as with the current Peter Brook Hamlet in Paris, the parts are always better than the whole; in a patchy supporting cast Aidan Gillen is a fiercely unexpected Ariel, especially adept at underwater swimming, and, inspired perhaps by all that water, Adrian Scarborough plays Trinculo as a rerun of his Moley in Wind in the Willows at the National. Altogether a very Almeida kind of Tempest: brisk, chic, chilly, on the cutting edge as well as heavily cut. In exile at a disused bus depot near King's Cross next year, the Almeida promise us an Anna Friel Lulu and Oliver Ford-Davies as King Lear as well as a new David Hare translation of Platonov.

In celebration of the Stephen Sondheim 70th, the Donmar Warehouse gives us a fourth annual Christmas rediscovery of one of his long-lost scores. Merrily We Roll Along barely survived three weeks on Broadway 20 years ago, and even led to an eventually healed rupture in Sondheim's partnership with Hal Prince, its original director. Never before seen in London, the show remains (like so many of Sondheim's) a work in progress; its central problem, though this is curiously seldom acknowledged, is not his at all but that of the original play, a Kaufman and Hart comedy from the middle 1930s which had the courage to tell its story backwards, a device more familiar to modern audiences from Harold Pinter's Betrayal.

What happens here is that we meet a group of disillusioned fortysomething movers and shakers, Hollywood trash of assorted varieties, and from that opening encounter we move slowly back through 20 years to see them as they were at college, young idealists awaiting the arrival of the Sputnik and John F. …

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