November 01, 1997

Forced Landings

Filed under: Archive,Interstate,Theatre

The Tempest
William Shakespeare

Bell Shakespeare Company
Her Majesty’s

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Just when I was beginning to think that the single-concept approach to Shakespeare had become a needlessly limited orthodoxy, along comes a production that is so giddy with signs and portents that it runs aground. The trouble with Jim Sharman’s reading of The Tempest is that it has at least four or five different brainstorms all tossed into the same teacup. When, in the program notes, dramaturg Antony Ernst quotes Sharman as saying “simplicity is not started with, but arrived at,” I can only think that this Tempest has quite a bit of arriving to do yet.

Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest is ripe with curtain speeches, revels ended, power abjured and goodbyes to all that. It is also a text that has been made to carry all kinds of freight. It is a post-colonial cautionary tale, an unplugged Electra complex, a study in takeover politics and a romance comedy peerless in English literature.

Prospero himself is like no other character in Shakespeare. More powerful than Theseus, more judicious than Oberon, more interesting than all the playwright’s other dukes and princes put together, Prospero stands both inside and outside the action. He is a mage but also a mortal. He can conjure storms, terrify indigines, compel his associates to leap buildings in a single bound and see into the very ganglia of his enemies. And yet, in the end, he just wants to be Clark Kent, with a bit of superannuation and every third thought on his nursing home payments.

In Sharman’s production much is determined by the uncomfortable constraints of Michael Wilkinson’s set. Beneath a canopy that looks like a page torn out of a Peter Greenaway pop-up Prospero book, there are three main acting areas. Along the back of the stage is a catwalk, a sliding ladder, a projection screen and a swath of deep red plush curtain, then downstage, a large translucent disc mounted on crystalline rocks that wouldn’t look out of place in Moebius’ penthouse in Forbidden Planet, and prompt-side, an extended ramp-like desk in pale pine where Prospero sits reading spooky looking books and generally surveying the action like an anchorperson on the Jim Lehrer News Hour.

Oddly, the staging of the opening storm is rarely satisfactory or convincing – and Sharman’s strobey slo-mo is no exception. So quickly on to the Cell and Miranda, played with winsome unworldliness by Rachael Maza, is getting the unexpurgated version of How We Got Here. It is a lengthy scene and any Prospero is tested by the extensive exposition. The narrative is thick with detail so Sharman has the personae parading along the upstage catwalk to provide some audio visual aide de memoire. In they come. Alonso, lugubriously performed by Tim Elliott, the dirty rotten scoundrels Antonio and Stephano, flouncingly interpreted by Lani John Tupu and Michael Turkic, and Gonzalo, the faithful councillor played by Kerry Walker, inexplicably revisiting her rendition of Snug the Joiner.

Unfortunately it gets no better with Caliban, played valiantly by Peter Lamb with shaven head, pencil moustache, assorted body piercings and a some fishy looking black ribbing painted on his torso. The role is problematic in interpretation at the best of times and, while never as brilliantly audacious as Neil Armfield in the memorable Belvoir B version of two years ago, Sharman nevertheless endeavours to give it an earthy dignity – although having Lamb scowling in a Western Suburbs accent is utterly misplaced. Further, the parody of kingship created by Tupu and Turkic, doubling as Stephano and Trinculo, is frittered away in tedious clowning with whistles and klaxons.

Installed among all this is composer Tyrone Landau, providing keyboard accompaniment which, although accomplished, threatens to turn the production into Tempest -The Cabaret, complete with lounge crooning from Ariel, played with perky panto energy by Paula Arundell. Her work succeeds despite having to perform endless business in a short white party skirt and a particularly silly set of Peaseblossom retractable fairy wings.

As Prospero, John Bell gives a star performance in anyone-for-tennis flannels and with a diction and fluency unmatched by almost no-one else on stage. His Prospero is gentler than many, more doting than some, however he is still not one to spare the staff. One moment Ariel is giving him a bracing back rub, the next minute he is doing nasty mindspells and the poor sprite is writhing in paroxysms of mime. But most of the time he can be found sitting at his cumbersome desk watching the events with a disconcerting detachment.

As well he might. Jim Sharman has created such a ragout here perhaps all one can do is wait it out. Set pieces like the nuptial masque and the rough magic speech all become anticipated but oddly affectless bijoux which dissipate rather than focus the play. By the time Prospero calls it a night, embraces an astonished looking Caliban and ensures that Miranda and Tom Long’s lumpy Ferdinand are going to run the Naples and Milan operations, neither the design nor the music nor the efforts of the performers have amounted to a Tempest worth celebrating. There may not be crimes to pardon here, but far too much indulgence has been set free.

The Adelaide Review, November, 1997. P.32.

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