Stephen Dillane is a thin, wiry Brit who-if you passed him on the street-might seem vaguely familiar to you but you would never feel inherently threatened by. Somehow, though, he is also one of those actors (like Ian McKellen) who always seem to loom large once you put them on a stage. Playing one of the grandest of Shakespeare’s main men, Dillane goes a different route than most who take on this titan. Instead of bellowing to the hills, he draws you in every so slightly but never sacrifices the power of the role. In Sam Mendes’ uneven, though rapturously staged version of The Tempest (following his production of As You Like It-which it will now play in rep with), Prospero literally begins the play in the sidelines, tucked behind a music stand. But in the steady power that Dillane-one of the foremost British stage actors who hasn’t been seen in New York since The Real Thing in 2000-can essay to an audience, there’s no doubt as to who this night belongs to.
The Tempest is often difficult to stage because of its tonal changes and shipwreck baggage (not meant literally), and Mendes sometimes has difficulty blending the dramatic and the comedic, the former lying in the subplot about Prospero’s relationship to his shady brother Antonio (Michael Thomas) as well as winsome daughter Miranda (Juliet Rylance) and her quest for true love, the latter when Caliban (Ron Cephas Jones), an island native enslaved to Prospero, begins cavorting with a drunken butler (Thomas Sadoski) and a jester (Anthony O’Donnell), making them a Three Stooges brand of misfits. And this production heavily utilizes music as a through-line to action, most charmingly in the spirit Ariel’s (the marvelous Christian Camargo) lilting songs weaved in the narrative. There’s a lot going on
At over two hours with no intermission, it can make for some heavy going, particularly if this is not one of your favorite Shakespeares, but the physical staging alone is a wonder to behold. A large, sandy circular disc standing in for the island is framed in front of a literal sea of chairs to suggest land and water, and Tom Piper’s magnificent, stark scenic design makes an ideal playpen for the panoply of characters. Mendes’s team is as crackerjack as they come, with Catherine Zuber’s thoughtful costumes and Paul Pyant’s haunting lighting design adding fine texture throughout.
The Bridge Project ensemble is not as filled with revelations as last year’s team, but a few stand out in this cast besides the estimable Dillane. Rylance is the very picture of virtue as Miranda, Jones makes a fiery and not at all unsympathetic Caliban, and Camargo, using that fantastic, James Mason-like voice, is suitably ethereal as the mystical Ariel, even in a ladies’ gown in one scene (!). But this is Dillane’s triumph above all. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 10 years to get him
back on stage on our shores.
By Jason Clark
Now playing at:
Brooklyn Academy of Music’s HarveyTheatre
651 Fulton Street near Ashland Place.
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes