Now that it's hit London, Michael Grandage's Sheffield Crucible production of The Tempest looks like it's just as anxious to leave, given the pace that the actors take the first act. Such is the speed with which they attack Shakespeare's words that huge chunks of the play are rendered completely unintelligible.

It obviously proves an unnerving event for some audience members as, on the night I attended, there were a few empty seats in the second half. That's a pity, for the production improves no end after the interval when the actors slow down and realise the words actually mean something. (That said, even with the more measured approach to the second half, there are still some isolated examples of dreadful speech.)

Christopher Oram's design offers a proscenium arch within a proscenium arch; for this Prospero is not so much a magician as a theatrical impresario. There's a superb production trick at the end of the storm scene - and this is yet another Tempest where the storm helpfully abates to allow the actors to speak - when the backdrop collapses into his magic book.

The prospect of Derek Jacobi's Prospero is without doubt a big draw with this production. He starts out at the same frantic pace as the rest of the cast; we first see him almost struggle to get out of his magic robes, as if the pressure of them is literally wearing him down.

This is a surprisingly un-modern and straightforward version of the play. Grandage makes no attempt to deal with the implications of colonisation, a theme that most contemporary interpretations dwell on, but then, Louis Hillyer's Caliban is very restrained, resembling a Glastonbury festival-goer after a particularly heavy downpour rather than a semi-human yahoo.

And at the end, we get a Prospero still full of rage and eager to slough his magician's robes and return to more worldly concerns. Nor is the spirit of reconciliation much in evidence - he embraces his brother brusquely, manifesting no true spirit of forgiveness. At least, there's a charming Ariel, thanks to a rather camp Daniel Evans. He sings beautifully (accompanied by two equally camp sprites) and provides the production's lighter touches.

This is a workmanlike Tempest rather than a great one, and would certainly be improved by a more leisurely approach to the first half. Still, it presents us with a particularly human Prospero and, when Jacobi finally slows down, a superb verse speaker as well.

- by Maxwell Cooter


Note: The following review dates from October 2002 and this production’s original run at the Sheffield Crucible.

The Sheffield Crucible was one of the first modern British playhouses to pull theatre out of the proscenium arch and provide actors with a 180-degree audience embrace. There is a certain irony, therefore, that just 31 years after its opening, Christopher Oram's splendid set for The Tempest should comprise a crumbling proscenium arch with a collapsing stage behind it.

This is Prospero's cell, and right at the outset, as the storm of the first scene subsides and the wretched ship's sail disappears by theatrical magic into the pages of Prospero's book, it signals Michael Grandage's uncompromising directorial take on Shakespeare's final play. No trappings of island here: the play is a straightforward metaphor for theatre and, eventually, the renunciation and leaving of it.

A perfectly legitimate reading, this does beg quite a few questions about betrayal, revenge, forgiveness, colonialism and a host of other abstract concepts which are clearly present in the text. Sir John Clements' advice was not to meddle with the abstracts but to treat the whole thing, not as a play at all, but as music, a great tone poem. Grandage doesn't buy this approach. Strangely, given that he has cast one of our great verse speakers, Derek Jacobi, in the role of Prospero he opts virtually to ignore the poetry and present us with a very prosaic account of the play.

Jacobi himself - in slippers, scruffy slacks, loose shirt and body warmer - is a sprightly academic whose temper is rapidly aroused and terrifies, in their turn, both Ariel and his own usurping brother Antonio; but it subsides as quickly into weariness and his dispensation of forgiveness is ultimately almost casual.

He also reveals at times a sort of unsuspected larkiness both with Ariel and with the burgeoning infatuation between Miranda and Ferdinand: his command of "No tongue!" as the masque is prepared is given such unwarranted nudging weight as to suggest that they are about to start snogging French-style, if not actually tipping the velvet. It is a very engaging, if unexpected, portrayal which hits perfectly the production's keynote of narrative clarity. And, of course, it is beautifully spoken.

With the absence of poetry, Shakespeare's lack of characterisation is a bit exposed. Claire Price's Miranda, her top half bandaged like a refugee from a first aid class, and Sam Callis' Ferdinand are as wet as these characters usually are. John Nettleton's Gonzalo is a pleasingly bumbling old retainer and the Ariel of Daniel Evans, with two lithe Spirits riding shotgun, sweeps and postures around the stage like a Novello chorus-boy, sings very sweetly, serves his master with apparent relish, rebels only half-heartedly and finally departs with melancholy dignity.

This Tempest is solid and workmanlike rather than inspiring, pleasant to watch and easy to listen to.

- Ian Watson