The Tempest, Norwich

CHARLES ROBERTS Richard Briers has declared that his role as Prospero in this new production of The Tempest will be his last assay into the great Shakespearean characters.

CHARLES ROBERTS

Richard Briers has declared that his role as Prospero in this new production of The Tempest will be his last assay into the great Shakespearean characters.

If he means it, it could not be a better time to go: out on a splendid high, in a performance which vividly illustrates how this much-loved individual has grown as an actor. Even better, he makes his bow in a production so fresh, so revealing, so full of truth and belief, that one might be seeing the play for the very first time.

It is a foible that the set is very modernistic, and the costumes a mirror to Italy in the 1930s rather than medieval Milan/Naples – all Il Duce pomp and gold rope, side by side with storm trooper uniforms with a touch of Nazi chill. But it works easily, as we witness lines and situations that leap out to us with such immediate clarity of vision and sensitivity.

The triumph of director Patrick Mason and his company is not merely the crisp definition of each and every character, be the part ever so minor; but also the widened analysis of these dramatis personae, which illustrates more vividly than I have ever experienced before just what a flawed and contemptible gathering we have here. King and duke, drunken butler and shallow servant, all come from the same mould. Even Prospero is stripped of his Olympian mien, as touched with bile and vengefulness as the rest of us.

This is where Richard Briers comes into his own, a Prospero who from the start is inwardly a steamer with the lid on, simmering dangerously and ripe for explosion. He talks to his daughter in their first scene with such control that all seems smooth – until his Spirit figure Ariel steps out of line. The grandfatherly Master disappears. Through three simple words a cold, regal, intimidating autocrat speaks. "How now, moody?" It makes the hackles rise. Now we know who we're dealing with, and from now until final curtain the image is repeatedly driven home.

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There are but two characters who rise above the spiritual penury of those around them: Prospero's daughter Miranda and Ariel. Madeleine Worrall is Miranda, a lovely picture of total innocence discovering the world, though her consistently high vocal registers could benefit from a little variety. Ben Silverstone's Ariel is a tantalising creation, from whom words come other-worldly and sibilant; whose chiselled face and exquisite hands are not of mortal flesh, and whose moment of compassion for coarse humanity is wonderfully touching. His descent from empyrean heights as a white angel with white dragon wings is a terrific theatrical coup.

t The Temptest continues atthe Theatre Royal until SaturdayNovember 23.Box office: 01603 630000.

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