Rain is falling as we are introduced to the ‘Fantastic’ Frank Hardy, an itinerant performer, whose life and miraculous show lie between the “absurd and the momentous”. Es Devlin’s stunning set creates a box of brilliantly lit water that returns between each of the four monologues that make up this intense and intriguing revival of Brian Friel’s 1979 play.
Stephen Dillane joins a line of famous names to tackle the title role. It’s a restrained performance, uncompromisingly demanding, carefully playing with the “sedation of incantation” that runs through the script: place names visited, adventures and traumas, are repeated in the softest tones. Hardy knows whether or not miracles will happen – that his success depends on chance – so his gift is also a curse.
We meet Hardy’s mistress and manager. As the former, Gina McKee’s accent is offputting at first – we’ve been told she’s from Yorkshire, and that’s not the only lie we discover from hearing her side of the story. The detail McKee invests in her scene makes it moving and engrossing. After these hear-a-pin-drop performances there’s some respite, thanks to Ron Cook’s appealing Cockney artistes agent. Though stories about a bagpipe-playing dog are funny, this isn’t comic relief. Cook presents a tired and disappointed man with subtlety.
The performances are awe-inspiring but the material is consuming to the point of claustrophobic and difficult because of its complexity. The drama comes from having three unreliable narrators, who lived together for many years but don’t meet during the play and are talking about events in the past. We see Hardy’s wife after his (possible) murder, and his manager after she has committed suicide, but the chronology is not explicit and how much time passes between scenes is opaque. Friel’s script shifts and changes and needs the lightness of touch that director Lyndsey Turner provides. A heavy hand could damage such first-class storytelling. Rendered so impeccably, the play is absorbing.
Until 20 August 2016\
Photos by Johan Persson
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