The Tempest: Full of spectacle and zest, it will put a spell on you

The Tempest (Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon)

The Tempest is such an odd play that it can take plenty of fancy work.

All that business with spirits and spells sometimes bores the Y-fronts off me, but the latest version at Stratford, co-staged by the RSC and a South African company, is great fun.

Shakespeare's last play is here done with lots of South African humour, witch-doctorish stick shaking and some beautiful, understated music from a small band.


Rousing: Atandwa Kani and Antony Sher

The show gets off to a vivid and exciting start, with a large paper dragon leading everyone a ceremonial dance. This immediate burst of exuberance somehow never quite fades.

Ariel is a black guy with body paint (excellent Atandwa Kani) while Prospero (Sir Antony Sher) is his white master, prone to shivering and twitching his head when he is about to communicate with the fairy world. Sir Antony, once such a slender man, is now maturing into the thinking woman's Brian Blessed with a luxuriant beard and a roly-poly paunch.

The spirits, rather like the chorus in the RSC's current London production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, are a cheeky bunch who follow the plot and dialogue and 'ooh!' and 'ah!' as their fancy takes. I rather like this approach, provided the actors are disciplined and do not over-egg things. Director Janice Honeyman keeps proper order.

As the story unfolds about Prospero's political undoing more than a decade earlier, I was struck by this toppled Duke Of Milan as a very modern figure: the vengeful senior minister  -  a Mandelson or a Brown, say  -  who still seethes with anger at some setback years earlier.

Sir Antony's Prospero certainly shines with fury at the thought of the backstabbing he suffered at the hands of his enemies. He may be an old boy with a large tummy, but he is still a dangerous creature, to be feared rather than stroked.

John Kani, as Caliban, reaches cruising altitude only once in the show, when he dances and shouts of his determination to have his freedom. The balance of the production lies far more with the younger, less celebrated actors.

The young lovers, Miranda and Ferdinand, are done with immense charm by Tinarie Van Wyk Loots and Charlie Keegan. She may be dressed a little like Barbarella, but she has the sweetest, daffy expression when she meets her first young man.

He shows off a remarkable wasp waist with muscle-man biceps which had the women (and certain gents) suddenly gripping their armrests.

Prospero's demand that his daughter and Ferdinand remain chaste until they are married becomes a classic parent's fussing. Miranda shoots him an 'Oh, Dad!' look that says it all.

This is a Tempest with tremendous spectacle and zest. South Africa's Baxter Theatre has brought a strong flavour of that country to the RSC's Courtyard, but the interpretation assists the play rather than takes it over.

Teenagers will enjoy this show in particular, I suspect. Catch it before  -  like a spirit  -  it 'melts into air'.

• ON TOUR until April 25 in Richmond (Surrey), Leeds, Bath, Nottingham and Sheffield.

Verdict: Africa in Warwickshire