Since The Tempest premiered at court for King James I in 1611, the finely balanced drama and comedy in the final complete play solely attributed to Shakespeare has sparked many a conversation on the natures of oppression, freedom and forgiveness.
The tale of magician Prospero, usurped as Duke of Milan by his brother and cast adrift with his three-year-old daughter Miranda on a “rotten carcass of a boat”, is emotionally affecting given Prospero’s change of heart about stitching up his enemies, when he finally gets the chance for revenge years later, armed with his cape, staff and occult books.
The story is also rooted in the racism of colonial subjugation: when The Tempest was first published in the First Folio of 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, one of two island inhabitants Prospero forces to do his bidding, Caliban, was described as being, as well as the son of the powerful witch Sycorax, “a saluage [savage] and deformed slaue [slave]”. Innumerable productions over the past 400 years have obliged that early dramatis personae by painting Caliban up, hunching him over and rendering him half human, in portrayals insensitive to colonised First Nations peoples around the world.
Enter Sydney Theatre Company and its artistic director Kip Williams, who have performed radical but kind surgery to The Tempest in a new production starring, among a cast of 11, the actor Richard Roxburgh, who brings a stentorious clarity to Prospero, and Guy Simon, a Biripi/Worimi actor who is a charismatic Caliban, here granted human dignity in a “new” text and extended stage time.
At first, audiences might not notice the numerous script cuts, but there are many: most significantly, Prospero’s worst insults of Caliban, with “filth”, “savage”, “misshapen knave”, “demi-devil” and a “bastard” who is “as disproportion’d in his manners/As in his shape”, are all deleted. The magician also no longer accuses Caliban of having sought to “violate / The honour of my child”, although he still considers Caliban a murderous conspirator.
Williams has interpolated many speeches from different Shakespeare plays in this production, most significantly stitching together an entire soliloquy for Caliban which begins by borrowing from Hamlet – “Within the book and volume of my brain” – then segueing to Richard II’s “I weep for joy / To stand upon my kingdom once again” – tweaked as “to sit upon my Country once again” – before ending with part of Richard’s “hollow crown” speech, changing “How can you say to me, I am a king” to “How can you say to me, I am no man?”
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The opening night audience justifiably applauded that soliloquy. I was less convinced when lines from the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene were added to the romance between Miranda (Claude Scott-Mitchell) and the King of Naples’ son Ferdinand (Shiv Palekar), although there was terrific chemistry between the pair. Lines such as “parting is such sweet sorrow” are well known to the point of cliche, and they don’t belong here.
The comedy was on point throughout, however: Scott-Mitchell and Roxburgh wring laughs from lines in the first act that could be otherwise pushed past. Veteran actor Peter Carroll is a long-haired, wonderful sprite Ariel, his pants literally smoking and jazz hands waving in the air; a genius casting move given the role is usually played by a much younger person.
Jacob Nash’s set design is simple, but directs the eye exactly where it needs to be – a huge rock eventually surrounded by a circle of fire atop a revolving stage floor, with thunder augmented by Nick Schlieper’s lighting. For director Williams, such a presentation is technically straightforward when compared to his use of “cine-theatre” in productions like The Picture of Dorian Gray and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Not everything works, however. The harpy, flapping its huge wings atop the rock, doesn’t look capable of tormenting the shipwrecked voyagers below. The masque ball that Prospero throws in honour of Miranda and Ferdinand’s union is also disappointingly brief and underplayed. In Shakespeare’s script, the spirit goddesses Juno, Iris and Cere sing and bring on nymphs to dance; in this production, we get four faceless people ironically jigging about in flower arrangements.
The masque, full of elaborate, expensive costumes, illusionistic settings and spectacular stage effects, was a central part of life in the court of King James, from whom Shakespeare’s players had acquired royal patronage. It was a statement of power, which is the heart of this play. This production, however, is more interested in revolutionising the script than revelling in pageant. In the final act, Prospero, who in Shakespeare’s text dismisses Caliban without any attempt at rapprochement, instead addresses him with a mashup of Hamlet and Richard II, beginning, “Give me your pardon sir, I have done you wrong”.
It’s a remarkable turnabout, particularly if you believe Prospero’s ultimate desire to unburden himself of responsibility draws more from self-preservation than empathy for the oppressed or the common good. Yet when he cries “set me free”, the eternal last words in the play, perhaps his personal power was never as great as he believed.
The Tempest is on at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, STC until 17 December