The last time I saw the Baxter Theatre perform a Shakespearean play it was back in 2005 with Hamlet. After having seen their excellent interpretation of the play I hoped to see more collaborations between the RSC and outside companies. These collaborations failed to materialise until now and whilst Hamlet was good, their version of The Tempest was great.
The thrust stage at the Courtyard theatre was transformed into a dry, dusty African island. In a set reminiscent of The Lion King the stage was sand-grey, strewn with rocks, sand and sawdust. Steep steps led to a plateau at the back of the stage forming both Prospero’s study and Caliban’s cave. Fibrous, orange trees flanked the back wall.
Into this warm, colourful environment came four musicians who would play music throughout the performance. Then with a flourish of authentic African accompaniment we were ushered into the Tempest. The cast dressed as animals and spirits took to the stage leaping around to the beat of the drum as a huge skilfully manipulated serpent entered. This serpent became the storm, which Prospero used to destroy the ship. Coloured cloth, suspended from the ceiling was lowered and became waves sweeping across the stage. It was an opening that encapsulated the fierce, vibrant energy and colour that characterised this production.
Both Prospero and Miranda were dressed in the colour scheme of the set making them a part of the place. In comparison, the invaders Alonso, Sebastian and Antonio were dressed in immaculate white suits adorned with symbols of their power. As the play progressed and they became increasingly desperate the symbols of their status were eventually discarded until they were left as dirty and ragged as Miranda and Prospero.
The use of puppetry in this production was key to Janice Honeyman’s reclaimation of the play. Honeyman drew heavily from African mythology. The masque was transformed into a voodoo ceremony raising tall, colourful spirits from the dead to celebrate Miranda and Ferdinand’s wedding. The puppets appealed to the entire demographic, enchanting the younger members of the audience and thrilling the older members; holding the entire audience spellbound.
The beautiful aesthetic was ably supported by the strong performances of the cast. Anthony Sher led the cast and it was his performance that rooted the piece. Sher’s Prospero was a strong, powerful, heavily bearded man, fully in control the island. At times he dressed like a magician, at times like a coloniser, complete with straw hat and whip. He was both a creator of the island and its product.
Sher’s fiery Prospero was in stark contrast to John Kani’s dignified Caliban. Kani’s Caliban was no vile, fish-like monster; he was dignified, elderly black man who had to rely on two sticks in order to walk. Caliban was completely enslaved by Prospero. Honeyman has created a play driven by the tension between coloniser and colonised. The servants in this play were black whilst their overlords were white. A black Gonzalo and Adrian served Alonso and Antonio; black seamen captained the ship; a black Ariel served Prospero. Honeyman’s reclaimation of the play has pulled the racism of the play to the fore. Sections of the text were translated into the African dialects of Swahili and Zulu to make the piece speak in a deliberately African way.
Atandwa Kani’s Ariel was a potent symbol of the African culture Prospero was making use of. Wearing nothing but a loincloth and liberally daubed with white paint he appeared as a Zulu warrior. Possessing a fine singing voice and powerful physicality, Atandwa led the actors in the many tribal songs and dances of the piece bringing a frenetic energy to the production.
Tinarie Van Wyk Loots brought an interesting spin to Miranda. This was a character that was a part of the island; who had become almost bestial. When she first entered the stage she hopped and crawled like a monkey, dressed in rags, it was only when she met Ferdinand that she started walk upright, to imitate him. In a particularly touching scene they clung together, cleaning each other like monkeys.
Charlie Keegan made for an interesting Ferdinand, though he may have been cast because of the size of his muscles.
Both Antonio and Sebastian were suitably evil. Upon discovering that Ferdinand was alive, Nicholas Pauling’s Sebastian delivered the line ‘A most high miracle’ incredibly sarcastically, drawing gales of laughter from the audience.
Trinculo and Stephano were energetic and funny. Honeyman transformed even the meanest song in the play into a full-blown musical number. Therefore Trinculo and Stephano’s mumbled drunken song became a full evocation of the problems of sobriety, complete with four part instrumental backing.
This was a lively, energetic and colourful production. One punctuated with music, colour and dance. This was a production that celebrated African culture; that discussed the tension between white and black society. Coupled with a series of masterful performances this was one of the most interesting and enjoyable evenings I have spent at the theatre.