The Tempest Review: Deborah Warner’s Filthy Island Absorbs and Disgusts

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<p><figcaption class=Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

One of Britain’s most visionary directors, Deborah Warner, kicks off her distinctively bristling show at Bath’s Ustinov Studio. She will be followed by opera, contemporary dance and cabaret, but she opens with The Tempest. Shakespeare’s last complete play is a metatheatrical puzzle, and Warner exposes its heartbreaking mysteries and honors its sheer strangeness.

After 16 bitter years in exile, Prospero, a magically usurped duke, is given the opportunity to bring his enemies to his island (Warner largely eliminates the initial chaotic shipwreck). His “rough magic” here seems rough both in an endearingly non-illusionistic sense and because it’s mostly used to mess with his victims’ heads. Christof Hetzer’s studio design has installation vibes: bare wooden boards against the walls, little boxes of pebbles and peat, a video screen strip. This is an island of the mind.

Pure strangeness… Nicholas Woodeson (Prospero) and Edward Hogg (Caliban). Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Nicholas Woodeson is doing a side casting for Prospero. One of the unsung heroes of British theatre, he is a witty character actor who very rarely comes across as the best banana. But 34 years ago he played King John for Warner at the RSC, and she calls him now for his often scandalous lead.

The role of Prospero has been seen as the aging playwright preparing for death, but Woodeson reminds us how angry the character is, how his resentment drives the action. Impatient beneath white monkish curls, Woodeson does not make Prospero sonorous or beatific. He gets the dissenters in a chokehold, slams on his daughter’s chastity. And what was his plan when he conjured up the storm? Woodeson shows him thinking, improvising. He is also surprisingly lonely. When Ariel asks, “Do you love me, master?” he blinks and answers from the heart: “Honey”. Unresolved emotion flickers in the final scene and he never settles.

You don’t go to Warners to laugh, and the joke and farce scenes are hard work. However, especially this week, the struggle to govern, unworthy and without conscience, registers strongly. Finbar Lynch is all calculation as Prospero’s brother, laying out schemes with a caressing voice and greeting forgiveness with a derisive laugh.

Cerebral and always vocally lucid, the production is somewhat puritanical, with distrust, even distaste, for the baser impulses of the body. Edward Hogg’s tormented Caliban and the shipwrecked servants he joins are a dirty crew. Hogg, in dirty vest and pants, sticks his hand up the back of his neck to poop or pleasure himself. Where some productions question Caliban’s treatment, Warner has him growling and licking from a bowl like a stray dog. His accomplices are splattered with mud, soaked in alcohol; people recoil at the stench of him. Presented sourly, he feels like a retrospective reading.

Other performances are fresher: In her professional debut, Tanvi Virmani tries to win Miranda back. Messy and compromised, she is also the daughter of her pedagogical father: abused by Caliban, she still bends down to help him tie his shoelaces.

Related: ‘Life is never what you expect!’ Deborah Warner on theater, nature and new fatherhood

Above all, Dickie Beau plays the spirit Ariel with a haunting stillness, a mysterious vessel for the wonders of the play. His shirt has the word “invisible” on it and Prospero never meets his eyes. It wouldn’t be a Warner production without Fiona Shaw, his great collaborator, so Beau, the lip-syncing theatrical master, lets Shaw’s recorded voice cut through him, moving in a balanced kabuki glide. When Prospero rebukes him, his face stretches into a silent howl, his tendons tense in extreme pain, but his eyes water as he urges Prospero to make peace with his captives. He is all illusion, but the force of feeling in him is captivating.

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