The Tempest

Staged in a sick-room and set in a confused old man's mind, Geoff Bullen's adaptation of Shakespeare's play is weirdly convincing

Can The Tempest be staged with just two actors, both men? Yes, as long as the titular tempest rages in the head of a confused old man.

Theatre at the Mill welcomes the AJTC Theatre Company's anniversary tour of Geoff Bullen's off-beat adaptation of The Tempest, on one of Shakespeare's later and most subtle plays. To those familiar with the play, the set is unexpected. Instead of wind-swept island, there is a bedroom with an old-fashioned wireless, a portrait of a 1920s young woman and a bed with a slumbering figure.

It soon appears that in this version of The Tempest Shakespeare's characters share the stage with two new-comers. One is a feeble old man (Mick Jasper) who lives on the edge of death, reliving and exploring past events. The other is the male nurse who soon joins him (Iain Armstrong). Their first lines are self-consciously declamatory, their acting broad, but this is just a feint. When the nurse opens a suitcase and the growling voice of Caliban issues forth, the audience sits up.

Jasper and Armstrong together perform all roles in the unfolding drama of Prospero, exiled Duke and magician, who lives on an island with his daughter Miranda, the spirit Ariel and the deformed, resentful Caliban. They bring the cast of characters to life with the aid of the radio broadcasting sound effects, songs and voices of the shipwrecked crew; with mime, masks and simple props.

The old man thinks that he's Prospero, and that his nurse is the sprite Ariel. When he addresses his daughter the nurse knows to hold up her portrait and affect a soft, high voice and as Caliban he wears a schoolboy's cap and teenager's growth spurt stoop and scowl.

The ante is upped when the old man slips one arm out of Prospero's dressing gown and starts a dialogue with himself as Ferdinand by turning alternatively his left and his right side to the audience. It however gets really outlandish when the jester Trinculo and butler Stephano emerge as puppets, Mr. Punch and Humpty Dumpty, drunkenly press-ganging Caliban into a conspiracy.

They are hysterically funny, but at the same time weirdly convincing in a way that eludes some human performers in lesser plays. Suddenly, poignancy is introduced when the nurse, as Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo, starts messing about with a negligee and wedding dress they find in a suitcase. The old man seems to fall out of his role of Prospero and into a flying rage. It is clear that these things belonged to someone once very dear to him but now lost, and the connection between Prospero's island and the old man's sickroom becomes clear.

During the intermission, the GCSE students that make up the bulk of the audience are excited, discussing the play and its many highlights. Two girls rush outside to waltz in the rain. When the play recommences, Jasper's portrayal of the tired and frail man is truly heart-breaking. He crawls out of bed, fumbling about and trying to get his bearings. It's apparent that this character can give King Lear a run for his money in portraying vulnerable dotage.

Perhaps that's the additional, tragic ingredient here: the old man's befuddlement. Lear's madness is self-inflicted, a convenient retreat from a life he can yet return to, but this old man is confined to his bedroom. His delusions are his only means of escape, of living. Both layers of the story, Shakespeare's and Bullen's, invite us to question who is truly free. The Tempest has been described as a play about stagecraft. In this staging in particular, Prospero is a prisoner of the play itself.

Prospero might orchestrate the shipwreck, manipulate Ferdinand, offer false promises of freedom to Ariel, but while the nurse supports the story he can also derail the play for his own amusement. At the end, it is he who puts away the props to be used again the next day, and the next, in an unending cycle.

To find out where you can see The Tempest, check out CultureNorthernIreland's What's On guide.