Noisy island in a sea of silent people

Timothy Ramsden

Romanian director Silviu Purcarete's last production of The Tempest was set in a theatre. That was in Portugal and the idea of "theatre" was a metaphor for the play.

This time, says Purcarete, as we sit in front of the set for his new production at the Nottingham Playhouse, The Tempest will again be visually abstract, played on a diamond-shape wooden platform, point-on to the audience. The jewel idea is included too: the stage will be set with mother-of-pearl for the performance. Prospero's island is a rich, magic place of his imagining.

The ruling idea of the production is not sight, but sounds; "The isle is full of noises". Magic spells are worked in the play through sounds, and the worker of those spells, Ariel, will accordingly be invisible. "Three times, Prospero tells Ariel to make himself invisible. And there is no description of his appearance anywhere in the text." On-stage musicians will play with a pre-recorded score which draws on Mozart, the great mixer of beauty and sadness.

For, though Purcarete talks of this as Shakespeare's goodbye to all that, so far as theatre is concerned, this is no happy resignation. Rather The Tempest expresses the angry mood of someone forced to resign. It is a dark play indeed.

Just how dark can be seen in Purcarete's view of the island's other inhabitants. In Ariel he sees the artist's creative spirit. Ariel's repeated requests for freedom, and Prospero's angry, delaying responses, Purcarete believes, show the artist's recurrent fear that his creative talent will desert him.

Caliban, he notes, has many of the most beautiful lines in the play - it is he who says the isle is full of noises. And in the end, for all his cruelty to Caliban, Prospero acknowledges him as his own creature. In Caliban, Shakespeare created the artist's dark side, a side he is always fighting against but cannot deny. This view plays down the independent role of Caliban as the colonised, but maybe that is not of such importance in Romania, a country without the imperial past of England. And it does make vivid both the appalling baseness of Caliban's early lines - think what his sexual attempt upon Miranda signifies when Caliban represents Prospero's dark side - and highlights the anger with which, after 12 years, Prospero still answers the being he controls.

And Miranda? She was a young girl when she was marooned with Prospero, but is now becoming a young woman. Prospero is faced with the choice of keeping her in his magic world or freeing her. It is another aspect of his renunciation. Not only does he want to be sure she marries a worthy person, he has to come to terms with letting her go.

Purcarete speaks English well. Only once did I not get the point clearly. At first he seemed to be saying the whole action is dreamed up by Prospero. But it soon becomes clear that things are considerably more complex than that. It is not easy to tell when Prospero is controlling events; the StephanoTrinculo plot is a good example.

As anyone who saw Purcarete's Phaedra will know, he is a director who shapes a play in a sensuous visual and aural style. His Tempest promises an intriguing contrast to British traditions of Shakespeare.

Timothy Ramsden Nottingham Playhouse to September 30 (0115 941 9419): Mold Theatr Clwyd October 17-November 11 (01352 755114).

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