The stage is covered by a screen with a close-up of a ship's radio. The lights dim, and the master mariner and other characters appear in the radio dial, buffeted by the approaching storm -a magnificent coup de theatre. Such visual trickery characterised this unusual, mesmerising and utterly wonderful production.
Prospero and Miranda have been abandoned, not in a lush tropical island, but in the frozen north. Sealskins and snowstorms deck the stage, and Prospero's cell is sensibly indoors, warmed by a brazier from which the whitened, ghostly features of Ariel first appear. Yet this is Ariel like none other - Ariel as Nosferatu in long black coat and ethereal cackle, although outside the snowbound shipwreck iconography is Frankenstein not Dracula.
The shipwrecked Duke of Naples and his entourage shiver in the snow. Spirits bring them a dead seal to feast upon, from which springs a bloodcovered Ariel as a terrifying giant prawn, which may sound silly but it works. Expect the unexpected tonight.
Meanwhile, Trinculo and Stephano have encountered an athletic Caliban and are plying him with alcohol. As ever, they get the best laughs, Trinculo especially with his Northern Whine, but this was the one part of the play which had scope for improvement. I've seen the sight-gags done better, the slapstick more outrageous, and Caliban both more threatening and more sympathetic.
As the play comes towards its conclusion, Prospero, played by Patrick Stewart, takes centre stage. His is an astonishing performance, at turns angry, amused, sympathetic, indignant. Stewart shows the full range of his talents, capturing the audience with sheer presence. Like all of the cast, he dwells on his words, allowing the audience time to fully appreciate the richness of Late Shakespearean language.
He is the crowning glory of a magnificent production. Compared to the RSC's previous outing at the Novello, the slick but dull Antony & Cleopatra http://http://roderick-random.blogspot.com/2007/01/theatre-review-antony-cleopatra-rsc.html, this is adventurous, audacious, visually striking with for once a big-name star showing exactly why he has such a reputation. That's why we have the RSC - so that they have the budget to be bold enough to produce exciting nights at the theatre like these.