This is the third production of Shakespeare's last play in London in a year, and it's by far the best (and the wettest).
For the final production before the Almeida is closed for a major refurbishment, designer Paul Brown has really pulled out the stops. Knowing that the site is going to be completely gutted, he has created a set dominated by a deep pool. The opening tempest is one of the wettest that you re likely to see (unless you were one of the unfortunates who stood at the Globe this year – this time however, it's the cast that gets wet).
Director Jonathan Kent has opted to play the piece without an interval and, with some judicious cutting, the whole evening is just over two hours. It's an excellent idea - it means that the audience can get gripped by the tale without interruption.
But it's not only Brown's imaginative set that makes this a worthwhile evening. The production is considerably enhanced by Ian McDiarmid's melancholic, embittered Prospero - a misanthrope of the first order. Right from the outset, we can see that exile finds him in good spirits, and - with maps, charts and plans festooning the back of his cell - that plotting is how he passes his time. Crucially, the “I pitied thee. Took pains to make thee speak …” speech is given to Miranda rather than Prospero – McDiarmid's Prospero is not a man given to pity.
McDiarmid is well supported by Malcolm Storry's brutal, sexually-charged Caliban; no misshapen monster but a man of flesh and blood, ready to hump everything that moves. And Anna Livia Ryan makes for a touching Miranda, with a nicely judged sense of wonder in her every speech.
However, Aidan Gillen is horribly miscast as Ariel. This, above all other Shakespeare roles, calls for an actor who can sing: Gillen (and no fault attached here) clearly can't and inevitably some of the magic is lost. Perhaps that's expecting too much, though. Kent's production sees him suspended upside down for a good part of the time and to be submerged for most of the rest. So, in a role that demands the combined skills of Burt Lancaster and Esther Williams, it might have been too much to expect singing talent as well. What is less excusable is Gillen's habit of delivering too many lines in a strange. clipped. mechanical. way of speaking, sounding more like a Dalek than an airy spirit.
But Gillen notwithstanding, this is one production of The Tempest that brightens the winter gloom. The Almeida is going to be away from its Islington home for some time. And while its revels are not quite ended, it will be much missed.