The Tempest. Almeida Theatre, London. The Tempest, generally thought to be Shakespeare's last play, is an apt choice for the Almeida Theatre this winter. The little Islington building, once a reading room and a Salvation Army Citadel, is to be refurbished with lottery money and, for a year, productions will take place in a converted bus garage in King's Cross. Typically, artistic directors Jonathan Kent and Ian McDiarmid have seen the gutting of the building as a design opportunity, something which will come as no surprise to anyone who saw the Almeida productions of Coriolanus and Richard II at the old Gainsborough film studios earlier this year.
As the floor has to come up and the roof off, why not take advantage of a new space where a watery basin can be installed and holes punched in the roof? Paul Brown, designer for the Gainsborough productions, is on hand again to give his imagination full rein. In this production, the sea will be present throughout and Ariel will fly into the sky.
Ben Harrison, in charge of education at the Almeida and assisting Jonathan Kent in directing this production, says the company's farewell to the ruined building will give Prospero's final speech, "Now my charms are all o'erthrownI" even greater resonance. There will be an emphasis on the magic of the play, an exploration of what magic is. "The play is a series of masques," says Harrison. He includes in this category the tempest and the chess game scene as well as the acknowledged masque in which Iris and Ceres appear.
"Both Ariel and Caliban pre-date Prospero on the island and bring out different aspects of him. He has to enslave them," says Harriso. Ariel (Aidan Gillen) represents the cerebral, ethereal side of Prospero's nature, Caliban the earthy. "Ariel in particular exists in some ways in Prospero's mind and represents an extension of his magic. But although they are in his power, he can't exist without them on the island and he needs Ariel to create this extraordinary moment, the storm. It is his magnum opus. He is astonished at his own power. It is glorious. He is intoxicated by it. He has sat on the power for 12 years and now uses it like a weapon. He acknowledges his foolishness in losing Milan to his brother, but he is furious."
Caliban, played by Malcolm Storry, is not an unsympathetic character. He is definitely human. The attempt to rape Miranda, says Harrison, "has a sort of brutal logic for him. Prospero is terribly disappointed in him and Caliban feels a genuine hatred towards Prospero, like a child who has been let down. In Stephano and Trinculo he is looking for another benevolent father-figure. He is a strangely moving figure. He wants love and affection."
In this production Prospero "doesn't feel a colonial burden". Harrison describes him as "an incredibly stern patriarch" who at one point has to be reminded of his humanity by Ariel, who has no pretensions to human feeling. "That final speech is very ambivalent. He knows he has to leave, but he feels at a loss when the time comes."
Heather Neill For information about Almeida education and The Tempest teachers' pack, call: 020 7226 7432. There is a schools matinee on January 31, with a pre-show event in which secondary age students can learn about the workings of the theatre. Tickets: 020 7359 4404