December 01, 1995

Drang und Storm

Filed under: Archive,Interstate,Theatre

The Tempest
by William Shakespeare

Company B
The Space

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

It is more than thirty years since the Polish writer Jan Kott declared Shakespeare not only our contemporary but the playwright for all of Europe. The idea liberated Peter Brook’s King Lear and gave acrobatic freedom to his version of the Dream but then it lapsed again. Shakespearean performance from the UK has, with notable exceptions -Cheek by Jowl, some of Michael Bogdanivich’s work with the ESC- reasserted the Edwardian English style. And especially for productions of Hamlet. Apart from David Warner’s beatle-ish interpretation in the mid-sixties, actors have been retreading Gielguid and Olivier. There was Derek Jacobi’s execrable effort for the BBC and Kenneth Branagh doing his version of Larry. Jonathan Pryce did something new but generally, whether Michael Pennington, Mark Rylance, or the recent Ralph Fiennes- most have reached the same point. They re-created the very model of the melancholy Dane. Thin-skinned, aestheticised- Hamlet as the sulky Etonian.

So it is especially refreshing to see Neil Armfield and the Company B from Sydney’s Belvoir St reclaim the possibilities Kott outlined so trenchantly in 1964. The fact that the Georgian Rustaveli Company spent a residence at Belvoir St several years ago seems also fortuitous. In a world of best practice and benchmarking the Belvoir Hamlet has set a new notch for Shakespearean theatre in this country. I gather it may be headed for the Edinburgh Festival. Well, lucky Scots I say. I feel most fortunate to have seen it, especially since the Adelaide season was cancelled after only one performance. Lead actor, Richard Roxburgh’s on-field injury must surely be considered a misadventure of Shaun Rehn proportions.
Neil Armfield has made some gratifying choices in this production. For a start, the scale is attractive. Instead of a mainstage extravagance we have a chamber work, well suited to the Space and the Beckettian themes explored in both productions in this repertory season. This is a Hamlet of human intimacies, as well as tragicomic paranoia.

When the Danish court convenes on the Brookian carpet square it is a small, rather zany sight. Dan Potra’s set, we are told, has recreated the dingy walls of the former tomato sauce factory where Belvoir perform in Sydney. The effect is also of a threadbare Balkan duchy with a poster of the current tyrant-in-charge on the wall. Except that Claudius, performed with throaty energy by Jacek Koman, seems a more suitable ruler than anyone else on the scene. Polonius is there, performed with fastidious intelligence by Peter Carroll looking like a cross between Ezra Pound and Franquin. And Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, now totally Stoppardian, look like two upper class twits from Special Branch.

The pomps and affairs of state are all rather tatty and Hamlet looks on with derision. But we are by no means clear about his reading of the situation. We hear much of Hamlet Senior- about whom the eponymous one laments with such paralysed fury. But when Ralph Cotterill limps around the perimeter of the stage in his ghostly nightie, though it is a piteous sight, we do not see Hyperion. Gertrude, frequently depicted as almost incestuously enmeshed with Hamlet is here played by Gillian Jones as a woman of court comfortably moving with time and circumstance.

This production does not provide any of the usual pre-cooked interpretations. This is not a particularly melancholy Hamlet, nor a sexually neurotic one. Nor do we need to wonder whether he’s just plain crazy. The great success of Richard Roxburgh’s reading is to make the central figure much less central in focus. This Hamlet is constructed by the circumstances around him. Polonius is a prating courtier but he is a complex machinator. Claudius is a strongman but he is not obviously terrible. And he shrewdly calls the bluff when in the middle of Hamlet’s wordy conceit that Claudius his ‘father’ is really Claudius his ‘mother’, the king plants a kiss on his startled lips.

Hamlet’s blighted love for Ophelia is persuasive in its negligent, idle cruelty. The enmity with David Wenham’s youthful Laertes is also effectively drawn. So much of the emotion is depicted by a kind of affectless sense of protocol -the reflexes of political revenge. But real feelings explode. As when Laertes blubbers like a child at the death of his father or when Hamlet in mid-aria about what a rogue and peasant slave he is ,suddenly takes stock of his own theatricality and chides his extravagance-“Why what an ass am I ! This is most brave..” Rarely do we see a Hamlet who speaks so much ordinary sense as Roxburgh.

All the small set pieces bloom. Virgil Robinson’s giggly Rosencrantz and Russell Kiefel’s lumpy Guildernstern, stalk Hamlet like emboldened schoolyard sneaks. The players, marvellously led by Ralph Cotterill, set their mousetrap well and Kevin Smith brings edgy comedy to the graveyard scene. As for the big moments, they all work too. Ophelia’s final speech is grim beyond the words as Cate Blanchett capers about the stage more like Mad Tom than the usual Lady of Shallot. And Roxburgh’s staging of the fight scene is one of the most exciting and cogent presentations of a scene which usually plays with little more than dreary inevitability.

Then come Horatio’s final words -not a sorrowful eulogy from Geoffrey Rush, but a piteous cry. Rush as Horatio has served throughout as a silent narrator, loitering on stage in his long gaberdine coat, brushing wood blocks and chimes from a raised platform on the extreme prompt side. He has watched events with a weary pain. Weary and painful because what we have seen are not the workings of gods or fate but only the impetuous savageries and unthinking sport of wanton boys.

The companion work in repertory is The Tempest. Newer- it opened at the Belvoir HQ in May this year- it has less overall flair and depth than the Hamlet production but it is intelligent and satisfying nonetheless. Yoked with Hamlet as it is, we are reminded of common themes of fraternal betrayal and retribution butThe Tempest is a play rich with resolution -in fact most of the play is concerned with ensuring it. There is a conspicuous use of absurdist elements in this Tempest but the storm is a notably kindly one.

Performed on a thick layer of sand with designer Brian Thomson’s reef of driftwood and flotsam spanning two sides of the Space, this Tempest is less beach blanket than beachcomber. At the front of the acting area is an old copper tub in which a tiny boat is being churned by a mage’s broomstick. But here is not the stern Renaissance doge of Prospero’s Books or the moody, painterly romanticism of Derek Jarman’s Tempest. Tenderly interpreted by Barry Otto, the former Duke of Milan is wholly given to reconciliation.

After a rather ropey shipwreck various bewildered villains are trudging on the beach in their as-if-freshly-drycleaned militaria. Unlike the low-key basic blacks of the Anna Borghesi and Tess Schofield’s designs for the court of Hamlet, Alonzo and his cohort, dressed by Jennie Tate, look a bit like Sgt Pepper’s Lonelyheart’s Club band. Buzzed by an invisible sprite they look suitably discombobulated. Ariel is rarely played by a woman these days but Gillian Jones is certainly no pantomime Tinkerbell. She has a bold, witchy sexuality and her link to Prospero is a far from simple one. Her voice-mike amplifies the ethereality and Alan John’s musical settings or Full fathom Five are sublime.

Cate Blanchett’s Miranda follows the recent trend to give the part a lively adolescent gusto and the brave new world speech takes on an exaggerated giddiness as a result. But the scenes with Jason Clarke’s Ferdinand are gently and intelligently unfolded -propelled as they are by the overt matchmaking by the doting Prospero. His objectives are clear – with few second thoughts. He knows the magic business is the pointy end of hubris and with the return to the world is an end to the means. Every third thought the grave. Last drinks Ariel. Time, folks, to abjure.

The big question in any current reading of The Tempest is what to do with Caliban. Shakespeare, as Edward Said and plenty of commentators before him, have reminded us, gives a very lucid account of the imperial spirit and its effect on the unwary indigenous. But Caliban has invariably been monstered in interpretation, rendered so fishy and unevolved as to beg questions of entitlement. In this postcolonial reading Neil Armfield and Company B have made a risky choice in casting Aboriginal actor, Kevin Smith, as Caliban.

It turns out to be a powerful feature of the production. The relentless exploitation, first by Prospero and then by Stephano and Trinculo is uncomfortably sustained. The latter, played with Laurel and Hardy pratfalls by Virgil Robinson and Jacek Koman exchange delusions as often as their hats. The Beckettian themes are overt here -not just with their Didi and Gogo business but with the hangman’s rope wrapped around Caliban’s waist in an echo of Pozzo’s Lucky. When the buffoons ply Caliban with liquor and he pledges to show the best springs and bring filberts and scamels, the extent of his trust and the enormity of the betrayal is vividly underscored-especially when Kevin Smith, in a memorable performance, gives such emphasis to his question -what a thrice-double ass was I ?

Again, as in Hamlet , there is an impressive evenness in the ensemble. Peter Carroll’s Alonzo in grief for his son, Ralph Cotterill’s dogged good-nature and loyalty as Gonzalo, Russell Kiefel’s Antonio, churlish to the last – these are solid accomplishments. Jacek Koman demonstrates his bold stagecraft in both productions providing inventive and extended comedy to the often unfunny Stephano and Trinculo business.

Barry Otto’s Prospero is the most gracious we have seen for some time and a long way from the Merlin-and-Moses readings we often get. His attractively mannered performance has a fluting, hypnotic quality reminiscent of Beckett actors such as MacGowran and Whitelaw. That he would abjure his rough magic kneeling in benediction to the lovers is fresh and endearing. That he would take a rather routine epilogue and, turning to Caliban, deliver the lines -“As you from crimes would pardoned be /Let your indulgence set me free”, is startling. And when the original inhabitant of the island breaks Prospero’s staff across his own knee it is not the stuff of dreams, it is a timely and convincing call for reconciliation.

The Adelaide Review, No.146, December, 1995, p.34.

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