Home / Theatre Review (Stratford-on-Avon): The Tempest at the Royal Shakespeare Company

Theatre Review (Stratford-on-Avon): The Tempest at the Royal Shakespeare Company

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The last RSC production of The Tempest I witnessed was set in a frozen arctic wasteland, which, apart from giving Patrick Stewart a good reason to clamber into a huge fur coat when magic was called for, added nothing to the Bard’s last major work. The same cannot be said for the South African Baxter Theatre’s production of The Tempest, on tour all over fair Albion during March and April.

This is perhaps the finest re-imagining of a Shakespeare play I have ever seen; the magic and the spirits that pervade the fabric of the play have never seemed so natural. The stage seems alive with the sights and sounds of both African dreams and nightmares.

The spirits, dynamic and daemonic, bring the island that is ‘full of noises’ alive. The musicians provide an inventive, authentic percussive backdrop that punctuates but never overwhelms the action. Modern Malian influences mix with traditional South African timbres, bringing the 'thousand twangling instruments' to life. The spirits add their own vocal accompaniment, as they catapult over the stage creating a hyperactive chorus that whoop and kak-kak like a troop of macaques freshly feasted on coca leaf. The masque scene no longer seems like some archaic English frippery, a ‘bottom of the garden’ fairy fantasy incongruously tacked on because it’s part of the text, but the very fabric of the island coming alive in celebration.

For all the wonder created by the setting, there is an evil darkness at the heart of this play. Subjection, slavery, and subjugation are what lie at the core of our entertainment. Sir Anthony Sher’s Prospero is, firstly, magus, pacing the stage, book in hand, commanding his spirits to wreak havoc on his adversaries, growling at his daughter to keep her latent lust under control. Then he becomes archetypical plantation gaffer, sjambok in hand and batted Panama hat on head (archly, initially worn just as he first summons the ‘poisonous slave’ Caliban for the first time), a brutally symbolic depiction of the sadistic sins of our colonial fathers. Finally, he is the fading Prospero, coming to terms with his own mortality and the colossal redemptive power of forgiveness. In all these incarnations Sher is magnificent, bouncing on the intrinsic rhythms of the verse, anger and angst perfectly controlled, with the confident pace and timing of a grand master.

It is far from being merely Sher’s show, though. Tinarie Van Wyk Loot’s Miranda is a refreshing change from the clichéd Miranda we are usually presented with. The typical Miranda has seemingly spent ten years in Swiss finishing school, and then appears on this island like a ‘memory wiped’ extra from Men in Black. No, this Miranda is a wild feral cat with a strange fascination for every new character that comes her way, a lithesome and agile representation of femininity in this most masculine of plays.

Atandwa Kani’s Ariel is a street-walking cheetah with a heart full of juju. This is not some meek partition in Prospero’s conscience, or the fey ethereal fairy figure that the traditional readings favour; this is a co-conspirator in the torment of the shipwrecked royal court, who in their white pristine uniforms represent different aspects of colonialisation.

For example, the King of Naples’s uniform deliberately echoes that of Leopold ll of Belgium, while his son Sebastian wears the white linen and louche drunken disposition of a European trader. Gonzalo, the wise, kindly dreamer of a utopian society, is a Ghandi-esque presence set against the rapacious scheming of his fellow courtiers. They all become visibly darker the longer they are on the island, the outer degradation of their white costumes reflecting the blackening of the hearts within.

Perhaps of all the inventive characterisations, it is that of Caliban that sets this Tempest apart, for the usual gnarled monstrosity is replaced by the quiet dignity of John Kani. The language Shakespeare has gifted him allows him to silently ridicule the constant repetition of the sobriquet ‘monster’, while he spends much of the play hunched over with black man’s burden weighing him down, supported by crude walking sticks. It is impossible not to mention — and indeed almost definitely intended for us to mention — the ‘N’ word at this point, for when Prospero turns the final epilogue into a supplication to Caliban: 'As you from crimes would pardoned be, Let your indulgencies set me free', giving Caliban his island back — it is hard not to draw the Mandela parallel, as the walking sticks are symbolically broken, and the tormenters are gone.

The emotion that pervades Prospero’s ‘resignation’ speech is not for the loss of magic, but for the tragic reality that will still exist ‘when our revels now are ended’. While for two hours the enforced superiority of white suppression is replaced by an African cultural superiority and dignity, we all know 'the baseless fabric of this vision' is still the case over much of the continent. Manumission for all is still a universe away from the vivid vibrant spectacle of the brave new world we have been part of for two wonder-filled hours.

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