For the second year running Sam Mendes has achieved something remarkable with his Bridge Project, bringing together artists from both sides of the Atlantic for a world tour that finishes at the Old Vic.
Pairing The Tempest and As You Like It invites rich comparisons, but these are never forced. The stories focus on the trials of love and justice. The Tempest seems more of a romance than we might be used to and As You Like It more complex. In both cases, Mendez has employed an even hand with his able cast so that some often neglected roles shine out.
The more startling interpretation comes with As You Like It. This is a dark affair, set in winter and with the Forest of Arden a frightening place. Edward Bennett as the evil brother Oliver gets the chance to really show us why Orlando leaves for the forest and Michael Thomas (who plays both Dukes) gives Celia and Rosalind a real reason to flee. Later on there’s even a torture scene – certainly not something you’d expect of this play. But As You Like It still retains its charm, mostly because of Juliet Rylance who plays Rosalind as a bubbling yet sophisticated schoolgirl. Her trial of Orlando hits the perfect balance between comedy and sincerity.
Prospero is always the key to The Tempest. Stephen Dillane’s understated performance is intoxicating, his thaumaturgy never doubted. He is the conductor of events, with his famous book placed on a music stand and the other characters his instruments. If dramatic tension is somewhat sacrificed because of this, a complex performance gives us a very human image. There is a wonderfully caring relationship to watch as he deals with an ethereal Christian Camargo as Arial, and his reunion with Gonzalo (Alvin Epstein) moves. The lovers here are Rylance and Bennett and both excel. Cleverly mirroring each other’s movements, they create some of the most beautiful images on stage.
Careful attention to movement is aided by the action taking place within a circle of sand. The audience is drawn in to Prospero’s realm from the beginning and, with no interval, it is utterly absorbing. Along with wonderful lighting and excellent music from Mark Bennett this production of The Tempest is certainly the most beautiful I have ever watched. While Mendes’ As You Like It may excite because it is such a novel interpretation of the play, it is his journey to Prospero’s island that is unmissable.
Until 21 August 2010
Photo by Joan Marcus
Written 23 June 2010 for The London Magazine