Shakespeare in a studio space can be revelatory. Sitting close to the actors generates an unusual complicity; the verse-speaking requires no loud declamation.
A chamber setting is particularly ideal for characters beset by psychological torment. Michael Grandage’s King Lear at the Donmar in 2010 made the storm scene appear to happen inside the monarch’s head; instead of bellowing over thunder, Derek Jacobi was hushed, confessional. And in Deborah Warner’s RSC Titus Andronicus, at the Barbican Pit in 1988, Brian Cox’s wronged Roman general drew us into his vortex of mad despair.
Warner now begins her stint as artistic programmer of the 120-seat Ustinov Studio, at the back of the Theatre Royal Bath, with another play in which the lead character is warped by unjust treatment and betrayal. Prospero’s protracted account of his brother Antonio’s usurpation of his dukedom – relayed to his daughter Miranda to explain why he has caused Antonio and his party to be shipwrecked on their island – broods with obsessive resentment on events that are 12 years old.
As imaginatively rich as a fairy-tale, The Tempest enacts an embittered outcast’s voyage towards reconciliation. One of Shakespeare’s last works, it aches with a sense of leave-taking but it’s also about turning over a new leaf. Perhaps the true “monster” on the island isn’t Caliban, its “native” inhabitant, but the interloping Prospero, who has subjugated the latter and also bound the spirit Ariel in servitude.
In this suitably confined space, Nicholas Woodeson, 72, gives us a dowdy, shifty, slightly professorial Prospero, albeit book-less, who initially combines acidity with flashes of spleen. He rough-handles his minions with surprising ferocity, Dickie Beau’s Ariel and Edward Hogg’s Caliban contorting their faces in open agony, as their overlord threatens fresh punishments.
It’s a potent account of the part, which attains something meeker and kinder come the fifth act and the elegiac “Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves…” That said, Woodeson could do with being more soul-searchingly conversational. I was never fully persuaded that we had penetrated Prospero’s carapace.
And that sense of a qualified success applies to the production overall: although there’s never an uninterrogated or uninteresting minute, there are sometimes slow, slightly drifting ones. Christof Hetzer’s design doesn’t provide a singular focus – it combines video wizardry (evoking storm, becalmed sea and ethereal visitations), and a general sense of flotsam and jetsam: large slabs of wood, stray crates for seats.
Likewise, it’s not wholly clear if Warner is making an over-arching thematic point by contrasting types of masculinity in her overtly – boldly so, these days – male-dominated production. There’s Caliban, a stinker in grotty underpants and vest, who slings excrement and mimes masturbation; there’s the gentle courtier Gonzalo, dreaming of an island utopia; and, in Stephen Kennedy’s jester Trinculo and Gary Sefton’s cook Stephano, we’re given a sottish double-act who couldn’t be more different to Beau’s refined sprite. In T-shirt and jeans, his Ariel eerily lip-syncs to a female voice (Fiona Shaw’s); but to what end?
It’s Warner’s right to offer up something that’s not easily reducible. And whatever the slight frustrations, it’s heartening to see work on this scale (a cast of 14) staged away from London, and blessed with a clarity of utterance. Among the supporting performances, the young lovers, Tanvi Virmani’s Miranda and Pierro Niel-Mee’s Ferdinand, light up each scene they’re in, as benign as they are agile. And Mel Mercier contributes a terrific sound design that honours Caliban’s famous line that the “isle is full of noises” – but can also make you feel as if there’s an odd ringing sensation in your head.
Until Aug 6. Tickets: 01225 448844; theatreroyal.org.uk