Five weeks into rehearsal for the Royal Shakespeare Company's new production of Shakespeare's last play, James MacDonald looks back on his recent experience of directing the late Sarah Kane's own final play, her disturbing 4.48 Psychosis. "You can't help but notice how many references The Tempest contains to madness. Both plays concern malfunction," he says.
He acknowledges that in subterranean ways Kane's troubled work will influence his production: "It's a tempest of the mind. The play is shaped by people getting rid of extremes of emotions of grief and madness. And from that, rebirth can come."
But MacDonald stresses that his production won't be limited by a single viewpoint: "We are trying to do a version that encompasses a number of readings. The Tempest is about a number of huge opposites: drowning and rebirth, freedom and slavery, revenge and forgiveness, nature and nurture, sleeping and waking, seeming and being. An issue like colonialism is in there, but it's not all that the play's about."
He sees the play as very open-ended, and is attracted by its complicated, magical and difficult nature. He also acknowledges its very personal concerns: "It's about someone of a certain age, with a huge amount of emotional baggage, having to let go. Prospero, played by Phillip Voss (pictured), has to learn to forgive people for the wrongs they have done. And that's a very difficult thing to do".
MacDonald believes the play does not benefit from being set in a concrete social world: "It seems to me Shakespere's most abstract play. The exact geography of Naples or Milan was not much on his mind." Nonetheless, because The Tempest has a strong court presence, the production will have a late 19th-century feel, creating a world of dressed-up courtiers.
MacDonald's openness is evident. Two weeks before the first preview he's still not sure of the mood of the final scene. "My hunch is that Prospero comes to realise that it's not a perfect world. He has to accept that people will be what they are. Antonio is not completely penitent, and Caliban is still a thorn in his side."
He is also still working on how Caliban will turn out, but rejects the idea of a misshapen monster: "For me he is a person. He's one of those lost children who has grown up without human company. Yes, he did try to rape Miranda, but 'rape' is not a word he would understand. Theirs is a sad and tragic relationship."
MacDonald relishes the thought of touring his production. He emphasises how liberating it is to perform in small spaces, arguing that in large proscenium arch theatres directors feel bound to provide full scenic effects for the shipwreck and other spectacles. "Our much smaller touring mobile set enables the audience's imagination to create the magic effects in the play. And in my experience that's what audiences delight to do." The richness of singing talent in MacDonald's cast will surely add to that delight.
At the Barbican until November 18; the Other Place,Stratford-upon-Avon, November 30-January 6; touring thereafter. Details: 01789 403440.