Sir Ian McKellen and the Courtyard Company are rehearsing The Tempest, their third and final production at the West Yorkshire Play-house, and the signs are good. It may even prove a landmark production.
Shakespeare's last great masterpiece has Prospero, the usurped Duke of Milan, cast adrift in an open boat with his infant daughter, Miranda. He finds an island and spends 12 years there, with only Miranda and some spirits and creatures for company. Prospero studies magic and creates a storm to shipwreck his enemies.
The Courtyard Company's interpretation of The Tempest, directed by Jude Kelly, will rely on Sir Ian's voice and actions to create the magic. The stage will be bare, except for a few chains and ropes. There will be lots of colourful lighting and expressive sound but no scenery. The island where Prospero spends 12 years is his mind, says Kelly, and when the tempest is done, by which she means the torment within him, Sir Ian needs to be free from the responsibility of creating the magic.
"The reversal within Prospero is fascinating," she says. "Coming from somebody who uses his charms to exact pain and revenge to someone who decides to include forgiveness in his philosophy is a fantastic statement about potential for redemption."
Caliban, a deformed creature enslaved by Prospero, is a pivotal figure. He deliberately provokes the darkest feelings in Prospero, and it gives him pleasure to see that Prospero cannot behave well in his presence. He stops Prospero from having moral authority.
The Courtyard Company has too few men, so three male "baddies" will have to be played by women. Says Kelly: "I'm enjoying the idea that the women are demonstrating the archetypical ambitions and desires of men - all the qualities Shakespeare suggests are male."
Kevin Berry At West Yorkshire Playhouse from January 28 to February 27. For details, tel: 0113 213 7700.