Shakespeare’s title gets taken seriously in Jonathan Kent’s staging of “The Tempest,” and not only because the play’s opening storm at sea might give the director of the most weather-obsessed of Hollywood epics pause. Rain lashes down from the roof onto a Paul Brown set dominated by a brackish pool of water through which the begrimed characters slosh their wet and slimy way. The elements aside, there’s a second tempest beating at the heart of Kent’s immensely arresting, if tricksy, production, and that’s the one lurking within the storm-tossed brain of Ian McDiarmid’s Prospero. The play occupies Prospero’s waterside “cell,” to be sure, alongside a second unseen cell that is the exiled ruler’s heaving mind. The achievement of this “Tempest” lies not merely in Prospero bidding his daughter Miranda’s request to allay the swelling sea; here the ravaged conjurer himself finally finds peace, albeit at the price of a “rough magic” whose abandonment has rarely seemed so rending.
“The Tempest” remains the most stirring of valedictories, and it does a double farewell of sorts on this occasion as the last Almeida production for the better part of 18 months while the Islington venue undergoes a $6.7 million renovation. It’s hard to imagine a better time, then, for a set that accomplishes its own dismantling of a rough-hewn space well suited to the play: The designer might have taken his cue from Ariel’s reference to “a filthy mantled pool.”
Brown hit paydirt alongside Kent last spring, transforming the Gainsborough Studios into a heaving, cracked edifice for the productions of “Richard II” and “Coriolanus” starring Ralph Fiennes. But in a manner comparable, perhaps, only to that of the Quebecois director Robert Lepage (one thinks back to his National Theater production of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” situated in an enormous pool of mud), Kent and Brown are able to reinvent a space while venerating the actor.
Radiantly lit by Mark Henderson, this is a design-heavy “Tempest” that nonetheless could not be more performer-driven. At times, it’s not always clear whether the acting will out, since McDiarmid — Kent’s co-artistic director at the Almeida over the last decade — is among Britain’s more eccentric performers; he has specialized at this address in playing Moliere and Gogol miscreants. Near the beginning of “The Tempest,” especially, the actor seems up to his usual vocal swoops, barking out lines while others emerge from a place even deeper than the “book” that Prospero drowns near the finish.
The initial volume suits someone whose tale, we’re told, “would cure deafness,” but it has the effect of displacing attention from the character to the actor. There’s a notable self-hatred to this cantankerous Prospero as well as the feeling — early on, at least — of his performer’s thespian self-regard.
Still, much as Kent pushed Fiennes to give his finest Shakespearean performance yet as a warrior Coriolanus glimpsed for once as a wounded near-poet, the director and his star have a cunning master plan here. As “The Tempest” pans out, one becomes aware of Prospero exorcising a rage of Lear-like proportions, with the fetid lake his very own heath. And yet, as he frees those around him, so something can be felt coming unstuck in himself: Prospero’s leave-taking is delivered as the house lights come up, with Shakespeare’s putative self-portrait ultimately “freed,” as it were, into the audience. It’s a simple gesture, and a throat-catching one.
Prospero’s isle, or so says the wretched Caliban (played by Malcolm Storry, roaring boringly away), is “full of noises,” and the vocal range of Kent’s players ensures that much is true.
So does a plaintive original score from Jonathan Dove that — abetted by Kent’s use of an angled gangway that hides the singers behind a shimmering blue screen — makes this play’s 11th-hour masque a far richer experience than it usually is.
But there’s no denying the island’s additional superabundance of sights, starting with a bleached-blond Ariel from Aidan Gillen (he played Stuart in the British “Queer as Folk” for Channel 4). He makes his entrance suspended on ropes upside down only to disappear at the very end by sinking deep into the water below: He’s an aerialist of an Ariel with two apparently equal homes in the sea and sky.
If Storry’s wheezing Caliban disappoints, the staging gets other roles right. Adrian Scarborough, late of “To the Green Fields Beyond,” is an ever-endearing Trinculo, sniffing at Caliban lest the son of the witch Sycorax might in fact be a fish. There’s something appealingly artless about Anna Livia Ryan’s fervent Miranda, however shrill she can be at times.
Lending dignity to a traditionally insipid role is the quietly exemplary Ifan Meredith as Ferdinand, an elegantly attired nobleman at sea — literally — in his new environs, who in turn awakens Miranda to the newness of love. (Enthusing about her “brave new world,” McDiarmid’s Prospero replies, “Tis new to thee” without — thankfully — that line’s usual drum roll.)
At its best, this “Tempest,” much like the aggrieved artist at its center, helps us hear things anew, and even when it doesn’t, the carefully distressed Almeida is a sight to behold in its last throes before becoming a brave new playhouse.