After the debacle that was ``Carrie,'' the musical adaptation of Stephen King's thriller born here last winter and buried on Broadway soon after, the Royal Shakespeare Company has gone back to basics. Terry Hands, RSC artistic head and director of ``Carrie,'' has handed over the company's Stratford operation to veteran director Adrian Noble. The longtime RSC associate came up with a season buoyed with polished Restoration comedies and ballasted by Shakespeare's histories. Mr. Noble's own mini-marathon of the Henry plays, retitled ``The Plantagenets,'' opens tonight. Even though a recent sampling finds many of the productions not quite on a par with last year's, the Stratford season is serving as a valuable showcase for a fleet of exciting new directors, most of whom are women. Indeed, the most striking, although by no means wholly successful, productions seen by this reviewer were those of this new generation of directors. Nick Hytner, who spends as much time in opera houses as he does in theaters, has curbed Shakespeare's romantic excesses to come up with a lean and mean version of ``The Tempest.'' It stars John Wood, making his much acclaimed return to classical theater after a ten-year absence. Deborah Warner, who debuted at the RSC last year with a stunningly visceral ``Titus Andronicus,'' is back with a vivified ``King John.''
Meanwhile, Garry Hynes, co-founder of Ireland's Druid Theatre and now on loan to the RSC, stretches her wings with a darkly acerbic production of George Etherege's 17th-century comedy of manners, ``The Man of Mode.'' Di Trevis and Sarah Pia Anderson, both RSC regulars, have turned in less well-received productions (unseen by this reviewer) of ``Much Ado About Nothing'' and ``Across Oka,'' a new drama by Robert Holman. Other Stratford offerings include a new ``Macbeth,'' revivals of George Farquhar's ``The Constant Couple,'' and William Wycherley's ``The Plain Dealer.''
A taut `King John'
Deborah Warner, who found a sinewy tragic line amid the bloody excesses of ``Titus Andronicus,'' has now exposed the beating heart of the otherwise wooden ``King John.'' She has wound the play, one of Shakespeare's creakier and wordier histories, like a watch spring. At the center is a commanding performance by Nicholas Woodeson in the title role. Last seen as Bessmertny in the Western premi`ere of the Soviet Chernobyl drama, ``Sarcophagus,'' Woodeson is a Napoleonic King John. Diminutive in stature, gargantuan in ambition and deceit, his King John pulsates with new verve.
In the intimate confines of the RSC's Other Place stage, hemmed in by Ms. Warner's thicket of ladders used as a rampart and barricade, one can track the concentration in the actor's face; this King John kills people with his eyes and lets his sotto voce lines, flicking out like a whip, do the rest. Other performances of note: Cherry Morris and Susan Engel as the two battling Queen Mothers, Lyndon Davies, who played the young Michael Gambon in the TV series ``The Singing Detective,'' is achingly innocent as the young Arthur, the pawn ground between the gears of warring regimes.
John Wood in `The Tempest'
Britain doesn't lack for Prosperos at the moment (two in London alone), but John Wood's post-Freudian bundle of nerves is getting most of the attention. And that is precisely the strength - and weakness - of Nick Hytner's daring new production. At first glance, it seems a lost-in-space ``Tempest,'' what with David Fielding's abstract futuristic set - white raked stage, a scooped hollow of a cave, a boulder and Prospero's staff - making for a rather Daliesque island getaway.
But this concept, spectacularly unsuitable for the masque scenes, is from beginning to end a visual one. Despite Wood's equally spare frame, his Prospero is intensely human rather than hi-tech, a richly nuanced rendering of a complex ruler who uses his magic to keep other humans at bay. Wood is in fine form, letting his voice - supple and show-offy as a prize feline - do most of the work. His is such a singular performance that the rest of the cast seems perpetually out of step. Hytner has yet to hitch his star to the production. The marooned courtiers are a particularly toneless lot, and the evening noticeably sags during their scenes. Only Duncan Bell's Ariel, a handsome sprite who is very much his own man, gives Wood any competition. Oh yes, and Desmond Barrit's Wildesque Trinculo, a porcine Queen in lurid clown suit, milks fresh guffaws from the role.
Restoration comedies at the Swan
Over in the Swan Theatre, built by a mystery donor in 1986 to stage the work of Shakespeare's contemporaries, Restoration comedy is in the ascendancy. The two productions seen by this reviewer - ``The Man of Mode'' and ``The Plain Dealer'' - are dazzlingly stylish, with several meaty women's roles (Restoration drama being the first to permit female actors). But neither approaches the indigenous humor and humanity unearthed by Barry Kyle in last season's Swan hit, ``Hyde Park.''
Ms. Hynes has attempted to give Etherege's malicious comedy of sex and style (the ``mode'' of the title) a particularly cutting edge - echoed by Ultz's black and white design scheme. But the production suffers from a marked decline in the dramatic tension of the second act and, on the evening seen by this reviewer, an oddly distant performance by Miles Anderson as Dorimant, Etherege's salacious anti-hero. As for Wycherly's ``The Plain Dealer,'' Ron Daniels seems to have settled for making this revenge comedy as brisk and busy as possible. Cheap laughs are gotten at the expense of some extravagant costumes and hairdos. Real laughs are earned by Daniels's sagacious staging of the seduction scenes, mismatched mates feeling their way around a brightly lit stage which is meant to be in utter darkness.
A competent `Macbeth'
As for Adrian Noble's ``Macbeth,'' it is competent - with occasional flashes of inspiration - without ever being exceptional. Miles Anderson is a forceful, believable Macbeth, although his characterization lacks point of view. The production feels unformed thematically, a failing that may be remedied with time. Amanda Root, on the other hand, is decidedly yuppielike as Lady M., an ambitious youngster on her way up the corporate ladder. What seems inspired? The three witches, a Brechtian trio of feminists rather than netherworldly spirits; Macbeth's visions of the future, which come in the form of Macduff's nightgown-clad children; Mark Henderson's and Chris Parry's lighting, a masterful interplay of light and shadow appropriate to this most claustrophobic of Shakespeare's tragedies.