Michael Grandage's production of The Tempest, newly transferred from the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, opens on a bare, uncurtained stage with only a silky, greenish backcloth and a rope ladder suspended at the front. With the house lights still up, a crash of thunder silences the audience. The ladder begins to sway wildly, the backcloth becomes a heaving, swirling sea, shouting mariners arrive and a shipwreck is conjured before our eyes. Then Prospero appears and, with a dash of his staff, the rope ladder whisks away and the backcloth gathers into a twisting cyclone, which is sucked dramatically down into his magic book. He slams the book shut, silence falls and the storm is over.
This impressive opening is one of many striking visual moments in the production, elegantly designed by Christopher Oram. These effects are imaginative and often beautiful, arresting our attention at times when it might be wandering. Although the production has delightful touches and to some extent captures the beguiling strangeness of the play, much of it is disappointingly conventional and ponderous.
The lighting designer Hartley T A Kemp has Oram's island set appear in a haze of blues and golds. Simple and attractive, it includes a proscenium arch, making a stage within the stage, which is used effectively in Act II when Ariel and his spirit-aides perform a masque for Ferdinand and Miranda, and again when Prospero reveals the lovers in a tableau, playing chess. The elegance of the design does not extend to some of the costumes, however, and none of the shipwrecked noblemen looks remotely damp, let alone storm-tossed, when washed up on shore.
Derek Jacobi is accomplished but over-declamatory as the magician Prospero. His paternal relationship to Claire Price's Miranda seems perfunctory, but his bond with the spirit Ariel is much more credible. Price has a fresh energy and good comic timing, though her oddly modern costume makes her appear too adult and strangely out of place.
Robert East's lugubrious Alonso is convincing, wracked with grief for his son Ferdinand, whom he believes drowned, and Michael Jenn is suitably calculating as Prospero's usurping brother Antonio. John Nettleton's old counsellor Gonzales brings a necessary humour and warmth to the rather dry scenes between the shipwrecked noblemen, and Iain Robertson and Nigel Lindsay are entertaining as the drunken jester and butler, Trinculo and Stephano.
But the star of the show is Daniel Evans as Ariel. From his first appearance, with a pair of giant, softly luminous butterfly wings unfolding behind his back, Evans's light, fleet charm is compelling. A graceful, sweet-voiced songster, he is equally capable of menace; in another splendid design coup, a banquet of fruit appears before the starving noblemen, and just as they reach for it Ariel shoots from the middle of the platter with dark, bat wings, like an ominous, upright vampire.
His desire to please Prospero wrestles palpably with his straining for freedom, and there is a real sense of a tension consisting of obligation, resentment and love between them. When Prospero finally sets Ariel free, turning his back so as not to see him go, Ariel slowly walks off stage, breaking into a run as though this is the only way for him to leave at all. At this point, I felt emotionally engaged for the first time, and the play was almost over.
The very end is wonderful. Prospero's work done, his magic cast away, his revenge on his enemies transmuted into a difficult forgiveness, he comes to the front of the stage and, addressing the audience dir-ectly, asks us to liberate him with our applause. This is a conventional Shakespearean ending, but Jacobi does it with such simplicity and sincerity that we actually believe it, and it gives our applause a joyful truthfulness.
It is a pity such sincerity is concealed for so long behind a declamatory tone that makes the beautiful language seem foreign and the characters remote. This theatricality is necessary to signal Prospero's farewell to magic, and indeed the play debates that very contrast between artifice and reality, illusion and truth. The success of the epilogue also plays a clever trick in satisfying the audience and allowing us to forget some of the flaws of the production.
The Tempest is at The Old Vic, London W1 (020 7369 1722/7344 4444) until 15 March. Sheridan Morley is away