Theatre reviews: The Tempest | King John | Still Game | Ordinary Days

A DARING new interpretation of Shakespeare’s last play has a heart-rending denouement, blurring the line between comedy and tragedy.

A DARING new interpretation of Shakespeare’s last play has a heart-rending denouement, blurring the line between comedy and tragedy.

THE TEMPEST

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

BOTANIC GARDENS, GLASGOW

Rating: ****

KING JOHN

ORAN MOR, GLASGOW

Rating: ***

STILL GAME

TRON THEATRE, GLASGOW

Rating: ***

ORDINARY DAYS

SCOTTISH STORYTELLING CENTRE, EDINBURGH

Rating: ***

COMEDY and tragedy; we’re used to seeing them as the two contrasting masks of theatre, but in truth, they often come closely entwined. The new outdoor staging of Shakespeare’s The Tempest which opens this year’s Bard In The Botanics season in Glasgow has not had its sorrows to seek, since its launch last week: I was fortunate, last Saturday, to catch the only performance so far not disrupted by drenching solstice rainstorms.

Yet if the skies over the Botanics are stormy, they are as nothing to the darkness of mood that finally seizes Jennifer Dick’s strange and intriguing production of a play most often interpreted as a redemptive late comedy. For what Dick has done is to dream up a Tempest in which almost everything that happens – not just the masques and magical creatures, but all of the characters except Prospero and Caliban – are only figments of Prospero’s imagination, truly “such stuff as dreams are made on”. And the final moment when his beloved daughter Miranda fades away, revealed as nothing more than a long-lost dream, is as heart-breakingly tragic as any moment of Shakespeare I have seen.

It would be good to report that Dick’s production as a whole matches the strength of her concept but, alas, it comes nowhere near it. The staging is so poorly choreographed, in places, that only a close reading of the programme – which lists most of the characters as “spirits of the isle” – makes the concept clear; and Prospero is so often in the wrong place on stage that several of the play’s most heart-stopping speeches are delivered with his back to half of the audience, and his staff in front of his face.

In the end, though, there’s no resisting the deeply original tragic impulse behind this retelling of the tale, or the sheer excellence of some of the acting. Stephen Clyde’s Prospero is commanding, vocally beautiful, and finally heart-rending; Paul Cunningham’s Caliban is electrifying in his rage; Nicole Cooper’s Miranda is magnificent, sad, passionate; Tom Duncan’s Ariel haunting and chilling. It’s a long wait for the final 15 minutes of this show, when the idea behind the production plays out with crashing, heartbreaking power; but when it comes, the moment is unforgettable, and very brave indeed, in its sense of the tragic truth beneath the surface of this most complex of comedies.

There’s little comedy in Philip Howard’s short, shocking and slightly mindblowing version of Shakespeare’s little-performed history play King John, this week’s Classic Cut lunchtime show at Oran Mor. Thanks to designer Kenny Miller, though, there’s plenty of aggressive grand guignol, as the characters stalk the stage like giant puppets, in rustling skirts and sky-high heels. Sam Heughan’s terrfiyingly handsome King John is a very bad man, at war with almost everyone except his sly and seductve mother – a terrifc Anne Lacey – and his frighteningly ambitious illegitimate nephew, Philip The Bastard, played in fine style by French/Moroccan actor El Razzougui.

There’s no denying that Howard’s attempt to stage this huge history in 50 minutes is a tad overambitious: there’s a cast of 16 characters, played by seven actors in a series of dizzy doublings and hauntings. Yet like Dick’s Tempest, the show has something fascinating to say, in this case about a play set in a medieval Europe of the mind, where modern national boundaries mean little, where warriors range from Jerusalem to the Welsh border in a lifetime of battles, and where ideas about sexuality are also less rigid than today, as Anne Lacey’s Cardinal totters on in gleaming red stilettos, and the English and French kings seal their alliance with kisses full on the lips.

Meanwhile, at the Tron, tragedy and comedy are masterfully combined in the original 100-minute stage version of much-loved television sitcom Still Game, Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill’s iconic tale of three male pensioners in a Glasgow tower block, now revived by ambitious young Glasgow company Sonic Boom. The audience are out for a laugh, of course. Yet there’s no denying the underlying pathos – and the redeeming self-mockery – of three fine performances from Gary Miller, John Love and Christopher McKiddie, or of the story of three ordinary working-class lives approaching their end, in a 1990s world where ordinariness is out of fashion, and old age is increasingly framed as an intractable social problem, rather than a triumph of human survival.

And at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh, last weekend, young Edinburgh musical theatre company Green Room tried their hand at a kitsch and cutesy New York version of the tragi-comic mix, with a simple but hugely enjoyable production of Adam Gwon’s small-scale 80-minute musical Ordinary Days, set in post-9/11 New York. The music is the kind of tinkling, rambling sub-Sondheim that begins to grate on the nerves after half an hour or so; the Friends-style story of young middle-class New Yorkers in search of themselves is self-indulgent at best, and a shade tasteless when it finally attempts some gravitas by referring back to 9/11.

What’s undeniable, though, is the stellar quality of the performances delivered by the director Michael Richardson’s Green Room company. Their set consists of a few simple boxes, their resources are minimal, but the two women in the company, in particular, sing and act their roles brilliantly, with Sarah Haddath making a fine job of restless student Deb, and Caroline Hood moving many of the audience to tears with her touching performance as Claire, in search of closure and a chance to move on, after her young life is changed forever by unimaginable tragedy.

• The Tempest runs until 7 July, King John and Still Game until 30 June. Ordinary Days, run ended.