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Marooned on stage

Heather Neill watches the RSC rehearse The Tempest. In a bare room in Clapham, south London, there is a magic circle. The Royal Shakespeare Company's Tempest is in rehearsal, confined within white tape encompassing only a few trunks, hampers and chests.

The actors themselves provide other necessary props: "spirits" turn themselves into logs for Ferdinand to shift and drape themselves on nautical ropes to provide the drunken conspirators with their tempting garments. When Prospero explains her background to Miranda, he calls up visions of the past; this serves to clarify the explication and to introduce the characters, who remain on stage throughout.

David Thacker's in-the-round production presents a fairy story which depends for its telling on the simplest resources of theatre: atmospheric music and lighting and the physical and imaginative skills of actors. It will run in repertoire with Edward Bond's Bingo, in which an ageing Shakespeare attempts to come to terms with the the compromises, the achievements and failures of his life. Paul Jesson, wearing the same Jacobean costume, plays both Shakespeare and Prospero. He believes that Prospero is "as near to autobiography as Shakespeare got". David Thacker goes further, surmising that The Tempest was Shakespeare's attempt to confront a particular betrayal; he cites the number of occasions in the canon when brothers are in conflict and guesses that this may have had some basis in real life.

Be that as it may, Jesson sees The Tempest as "a revenge play that changes direction when Ariel teaches Prospero forgiveness" and, for proof, points to the relevant lines early in Act V. "Your charm so strongly works 'em That if you now beheld them your affections Would become tender." Until this moment, Prospero has rejoiced in having his enemies in his power; afterwards he forgives his usurping brother Antonio.

For Jesson one of the links between the two plays is the exile (chosen or imposed) in which the main characters find themselves; that and the often-quoted breaking of Prospero's staff as a symbol for Shakespeare laying down his "magic", his writing. Jesson sums up Shakespeare in Bingo as "tortured", Prospero as "not benign". Neither play presents a benevolent old man ready to contemplate his life's work in peace.

Both Thacker and Jesson describe Caliban and Ariel as aspects of Prospero, while they are also characters in their own right. The Prospero who loses his dukedom because he spends too much time in his study is all intellect; Ariel represents his imagination and Caliban the baser instincts, including sexual desire, which he scarcely wishes to own.

Caliban is a problematic character. After a period during which easy political points were often scored by making him a noble savage exploited by the sophisticates from Milan, the actor and director in 1995 must find Shakespeare's character afresh in the text. The cliched colonial parallels cannot be entirely discounted, however. Caliban began by welcoming Prospero and his young daughter and only forfeited their good will when he attempted to rape Miranda. His birthright has been stolen from him, nevertheless. But to see him as all perfection before Prospero's arrival would, says Thacker, be "sentimental; he is constantly referred to as a monster".

There has been much discussion about Caliban's parentage. Sycorax the witch was his mother, but who was his father? Does "the devil himself" perhaps refer to Setebos, the god of the island? Dominic Letts, who plays Caliban, imagines that Setebos, a dark, pagan god "did a sort of Rosemary's baby " with Sycorax. The product of this union is only partly human, damaged at birth and covered with suppurating sores ("I get thrown into briars a lot and nobody gives me any Savlon").

Yet, suggests Letts, he and Miranda may have been close, enjoying the island together when she was a child. Only when she reached puberty did he treat her differently - once, impetuously - and his world changed. An actor is bound to see things from his character's point of view and Letts has plenty of sympathy for Caliban: "One of the nice things about him is that he is sensitised to beauty as well as ugliness." David Thacker hopes the production will bring out the contradictions in the character. A creature of nature, on whom nurture will not stick, he is both repulsive and a victim, both a rightful heir and a poor judge who, in Letts' words, is "quick to be a puppy and give it all away. "

Ariel is played by Bonnie Engstrom, a Bjork look-alike straight from college, as "quick, quick-witted"; she has kept mercury, quicksilver, as an idea at the back of her mind. Her Ariel is a physical spirit (Engstrom has dance training), neither male nor female. She is fascinated by the sense of anarchy in her character, "the pleasure and sense of freedom in setting things on fire". And freedom is Ariel's deepest need: "I see herhim", says Engstrom, "as a butterfly trapped in a hand". Like the butterfly, Ariel lives in the moment and when freedom comes will bear no grudge.

Adrian Johnston's music has no definite beginnings or ends - this isle is full of noises indeed. He found inspiration in the music of Lapland, its storytelling, random quality, and provides magic and excitement by deploying various percussion and eerie wind sounds. A few days before the first performance he lobs a googly into the lunch-time discussion: "Prospero is so keen to get his supplies of fuel in, this place must be cold." Suddenly the assumed Caribbean, "Bermoothes" location has taken on another dimension. Such is the kind of insight (or red herring) that rehearsals throw up.

Young Vic (0171 928 6363638 8891) to July 20 then Stratford-upon-Avon and touring countrywide starting at Ellesmere Port on September 16. Tour details: 0171 382 7127

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