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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
SHIPWRECK TRILOGY
at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

GREAT DISTANCES
By MICHAEL COVENEY

  Amie Burns Walker, Bruce Mackinnon and Jonathan McGuinness in The Comedy of Errors/ Ph: Keith Pattison

The country is awash with Shakespeare in this Olympic Games summer. Under the umbrella title of The World Shakespeare Festival, you can find "Globe to Globe" in London’s favourite open-air theatre – all 37 plays performed in 37 different languages by visiting companies before the Globe itself gets around to Henry V – and, of course, a full programme at Stratford-upon-Avon.
 
The Royal Shakespeare Company has two sub-divisions for the first part of the season – “What Country Friends Is This?” and “Nations at War” – and, just to add to the labelling confusion, the first of those categories is also known as the Shipwreck Trilogy: The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night and The Tempest.
 
What about the fourth shipwreck play in Shakespeare, Pericles, you might reasonably ask? Well, that crops up in the Courtyard (the temporary home of the RSC while the new theatre was being built) in October, as part of yet another season, “Open Stages,” which brings local amateurs into collaboration with the professional company.
 
The separation of twins in Comedy and Twelfth Night and the fate of a kingdom in The Tempest are the narrative issues in the Shipwreck Trilogy, and all three plays share the same company of actors and the same design of Jon Bausor, who has transformed the theatre into a great deck of wooden planks, with a diagonal crane across the stage and a water tank of the sea itself, in one quarter of the arena, where Viola emerges to ask, “What country, friends, is this?”
 
For Comedy, Palestinian director Amir Nizar Zuabi – whose excellent ShiberHur Company has been seen at the Young Vic in London – has created a bustling and dangerous Mediterranean port of Ephesus, where the escapades of the twin-set pairs of masters and servants are hectically pursued between bouts of water torture, electric shock treatment (from Doctor Pinch, the mountebank, unusually sinister and satanic in Jonathan Slinger’s performance) and machine-gun fire.
 
In its many dark and violent respects, the production is similar to the recent National Theatre revival with Lenny Henry, though the RSC has come up trumps with two very funny new actors as the Dromios, Felix Hayes and Bruce Mackinnon, who also play Fabian and Aguecheek in Twelfth Night and, most brilliantly of all, the wrecked (in every sense of the word) Trinculo and Stephano in The Tempest.
 
Slinger, having warmed up as Pinch, asserts his supremacy in this company as a very funny, middle-management Malvolio and a rasping, vindictive but curiously melancholic Prospero. When he dons the yellow stockings in the first role, he can hardly walk, revealing first a huge leather codpiece and secondly an unwittingly exposed posterior as he tries (and fails) to make a dignified exit.
 
This Malvolio travels a great distance (some of it in a personalised electric buggy) from officious steward to imprisoned buffoon, though director David Farr, who also directs The Tempest, has more trouble making the comedy fit the stage, despite importing a dramatic, rusty old lift and a revolving glass door tipped at an angle to the side.
 
It’s fun to trace the progress of an actor like Emily Taaffe in her RSC debut season from a screeching Luciana in Comedy to a pretty good, boyish Viola and finally, her best role, a delightful Miranda in The Tempest. Following a bout of cross-gender casting in the opening Swan Theatre productions, Kirsty Bushell (also Adriana and Olivia) plays a soignée Sebastian in the Milanese party.
 
But it’s Slinger who dominates the trilogy, not least as Prospero, who has dominated his island by dressing his alter ego Ariel (a very light and touching Sandy Grierson) and the other sprites in identical suits, sprayed in ethereal dust. He considers each situation, and the awakening love of his daughter, with a wry resignation and a voice that runs up and down the register without ever seeming mannered.
 
The ending is as moving and beautiful as I’ve ever experienced it in this play, making The Tempest, overall, the most coherently imagined of the three productions by some margin. All three will play a season at the Roundhouse in June and early July before returning to Stratford in the repertoire through October.  

 


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