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Walk on the wild side: Pippa Nixon as Ariel in “The Tempest”, at the Globe until April 22 (©Marc Brenner)

In just over a decade at London’s Globe Theatre Dominic Dromgoole has rediscovered the potential of Big Will to make modern groundlings laugh — and not just in the knowing way of seasoned quip and pun spotters. Dromgoole has shone his director’s light onto the tricksters, gulls and incidental characters with gusto. Some would cavil that he has tended towards Shakespeare-Lite. But Dromgoole has a record to celebrate for a non-subsidy-funded theatre, with a Hamlet-to-go casting that has often beaten the RSC for ingenuity. He’s given us the Eve Best as a snarky, sarky, sexy Beatrice and Cleopatra, plus Roger Allam’s bittersweet Falstaff, and he has lured Tim McMullan from the National to steal the show as Jacques in As You Like It.

His farewell piece is The Tempest in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse with McMullan promoted to a leading role as Prospero. Dromgoole makes the most of the small theatre’s intimate theatricality and bold suspension of disbelief. Drums are pounded on stage to summon up the storm and the tempest is more Captain Pugwash than technical wizardry. Tricks are played along the way: Ariel is straight out of early Lou Reed — “Shaved her legs and then he was a she” — played with devilish ethereality by Pippa Nixon. The wires on which the capricious sprites ascend and descend are unhidden.

This sense of theatre in the making sets a more relaxed tone to the play than is conventional. The tone of The Tempest always depends on the interpretation of Prospero. Ralph Fiennes set a contemporary template with a sternly patriarchal, chilly interpretation, in which the sorcery was incidental to the desire to dominate. McMullan celebrates the role in a more human dimension: a fatherly anxiety underpins his obsessive wish to control the burgeoning maturity of Miranda (Phoebe Pryce), contrasting with outright harshness in the treatment of poor Caliban (Fisayo Akinade). Dominic Rowan is a perpetually befuddled Trimalchio and perfect showcase for Dromgoole’s talent for the bawdy. It would not be a fitting farewell if we did not get his trademarks share of burps, farts and slapstick alongside the poignancy of the play’s meditation on the transience of all things, real or magical.

All in all, it feels like a darker cousin to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Dromgoole’s shoes at the Globe and Wanamaker will soon be filled by Emma Rice, who intends to assign more traditionally male parts to women. It is a move that has brought feminist cheers, but that is the easy part. Getting the mix right in practice will be tough. Dromgoole understood that the spirit of the Globe requires gut instinct to bring to life and in The Tempest he brings dreams to life with aplomb. Can Rice pull that off one day with a female Prospero? I’ll let you know.

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