February 24, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

The Tempest (Baxter Theatre Centre) @ The Courtyard Theatre

Writing about web page http://www.rsc.org.uk/whatson/6941.aspx

When the Complete Works Festival finished, we were promised that it would be an "engine of change" at the RSC, ushering in home and international collaborations and more new work. However, after a couple of months, the RSC was taken over by the Histories and then the last summer season (a.k.a. The "Tennant" season). There have been collaborations (or, at least, other companies using the Courtyard) and new work, but mostly fairly low-profile. However, the South African Baxter Theatre Centre’s new Tempest appears to be the real deal – an international collaboration given a full month at the Courtyard and all the press attention that a production of this size and quality deserves.

The Baxter were last here presenting their Hamlet, a solid production of that play. The Tempest, however, was on an entirely different scale in all senses. An enormous set took up the entire thrust stage of the Courtyard, with undulating rocky ridges, a sprawling upper level of branches and rocks and stone-cut stairs and ramps that provided endless opportunities for creative staging. Flags and drapes descended from the ceiling for the storm and masque scenes, while Caliban emerged from a cave at the base of Prospero’s lair.

This basic set, though, still allowed plenty of space for the frenetic physical activity and puppetry of the ensemble. Director Janice Honeyman had drawn heavily on the traditions and mythology of Africa as part of her reclamation of the play, and this was realised spectacularly in performance. Ariel’s scripted songs were augmented by multi-part harmonies, while even the flimsiest hints of songs (such as Stephano’s ramblings) were developed into full-scale song and dance numbers with a chorus of tribal spirits providing percussion and backing vocals. This was The Tempest as festival, appropriating Shakespeare’s text to provide the basis for a celebration of the company’s roots and culture.

The puppetry of the production was perhaps its most impressive and memorable element. In the play’s opening moments, Prospero emerged and conjured the "Spirit of the Sea", an enormous serpent lifted directly from Zulu cosmology that required several performers to manipulate it as it stirred up the thunder and waves of the storm. Sycorax, too, was realised on stage as a series of body-parts on long sticks, the performers creating a hovering, disembodied face that glared down on Ariel as Prospero reminded him of his earlier imprisonment. Two man-size hands reached down and enclosed Ariel, trapping him quite literally in Sycorax’s grasp. These colourful, carnivalesque puppets continued to be used throughout; giant cartoonish male/female bodies danced a masque for Ferdinand and Miranda, while piles of clothes turned inside out when disturbed by Stephano and Trinculo, becoming grotesque monsters who chased the comedians away.

In the programme, Honeyman’s work is dsecribed as "political by implication rather than by tub-thumping". Nevertheless, the politics of the play were explicit rather than implict, with Antony Sher’s Prospero donning the fedora, waistcoat and white suit of a plantation owner while John Kani’s Caliban was a relatively dignified older black man, with little more than crutches to signify him as a ‘monster’. Here, the white nobles were shipwrecked in a land entirely ‘other’, where they were confused and disoriented by black spirits ultimately controlled by a white man. With this established, however, the production didn’t ram home its points, preferring simply to keep the racial and colonial politics visible while telling the story. Gonzalo, Adrian, Trinculo and Sebastian were all re-imagined as darker-skinned servants to the more powerful white nobles; Ariel’s bondage was visually represented in his exotic body-markings, which Prospero himself washed off as he freed him; and Miranda fell between the political and social lines, a white girl dressed as if in The Land That Time Forgot, with a voice and intelligence cultivated by her civilised father but a tactile curiosity and wide-eyed wonder that associated her more with the spirits.

Sher’s Prospero dominated throughout, he providing a powerful and always interesting reading of the character. This was a conflicted and severely-flawed man, who readied himself with a rifle and bloody thoughts before being moved by Ariel’s empathy for his enemies. This scholarly man busied himself with an enormous single magic book, and his performance of his art tied him to the African land he had become master of, donning a dusty robe and moving his staff in a clumsier yet more forceful echo of Ariel’s fast spinning and dancing.

His relationship with Atawanda Kani’s Ariel was particularly complex; in their first meeting, he pinned his slave down in physical subjugation, wielding his magic staff to the spirit’s terror. Yet his affection for Ariel bordered on loving dependence. As the play progressed, he was increasingly drawn to touch the spirit, always eventually shying away, but particularly aggrieved by Ariel’s need to ask "Do you love me?" Ariel’s freedom became a personal wrench for Prospero, and his tender washing off of Ariel’s marks of servitude became a ritual that he forced himself to carry out. Ariel’s scream of joy as he tasted freedom and ran off was ecstatic, and Prospero never seemed older than as he called after him, waving and crying out to him, hoping that the spirit would look back, just once. He didn’t, and Prospero was bereft.

Atawanda Kani took "airy" as his watchword in his performance, which was occasionally irritating in the lightness of his voice and movements. However, he orchestrated the stage action with style and effected a particularly startling ‘harpy’ sequence – he ran in on spring-loaded stilts with tribal headdress and long weapons, giving him a physically imposing and threatening presence that, rarely for this production, brought out the spirit’s darker and more aggressive side as he growled at the men of sin. Conversely, John Kani’s Caliban was underplayed. Chained and confined to two crutches, he staggered about, reserving his anger and bitterness at the loss of "his" island to be expressed in his voice alone. He was inseparably bound to the island, first appearing from the earth itself, blowing on a smoking pan as he performed a religious ritual, then joining with the spirits as he finished the first act with his freedom hymn.

At it heart, however, this was actually a relatively traditional production. Stephano and Trinculo were bumbling and entertaining; Antonio and Sebastian sneering (Nicholas Pauling’s Sebastian particularly so, Gonazlo’s words seeming to physically disgust him), Alonso melancholy and ultimately redeemed (he forcibly tore Antonio’s sash of office from him as Prospero was reinstated) and Ferdinand perky and noble. Tinarie van Wyk Loots made for a more unusual Miranda, almost feral as she crept along the rocks to peer at Ferdinand as he worked. She touched faces and arms as her way of getting to know somebody, lending an immediate intimacy to her relationship with Ferdinand. It was in the details that the production distinguished itself, whether Ariel physically copying the movements of Trinculo as he projected his voice to antagonise Stephano, or Sebastian’s hugely sarcastic "A most high miracle" when the heir he hoped to disinherit was discovered alive and well.

The production ended on a more troubled note, though, as Prospero picked up his suitcase and prepared to leave the island. His parting from Ariel had left him clearly troubled, and the rest of the company had left the stage, leaving him alone, an old man unprepared to rejoin ‘civilised’ society. As he neared the end of the epilogue, Caliban emerged once more, peering in confusion at Prospero. His final lines "As you from crimes would pardoned be/ Let your indulgence set me free" were addressed directly to Caliban, as apology and challenge, before he walked off. Caliban hobbled up a slope to a vantage point and peered out over the now-deserted island. He threw his crutches to the ground, and the lights faded on him as he became, once more, king of the isle. A moment simultaneously of hope and uncertainty, it provided a fitting final image to a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable evening.

Posted in Theatre review