The Tempest, presented by the Love and Madness Ensemble at the Riverside Theatre, Coleraine, County Derry, Ireland, 7 February 2008.
Kevin De Ornellas
University of Ulster
Kevin De Ornellas. "The Tempest, presented by the Love and Madness Ensemble at the Riverside Theatre, Coleraine, County Derry, Ireland.". Early Modern Literary Studies 14.2/Special Issue 17 (September, 2008) 23.1-6 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/14-2/revdeor1.html>
Directed by Jack Shepherd. Production Design by Kelly Hogan. Sound Design by Jim Bywater. Mask making by Jake Shepherd. With Natham Brine (Antonio), Lucy Conway (Sebastianne/Stephania), Luciano Dodero (Ferdinand), Ben Gaule (Gonzalo/Trinculo), Nicholas Kempsey (Ariel), Neil Sheppeck (Caliban), Matthew Sim (Prospero), Sarah Straker (Miranda) and Craig Tonks (Alonso).
- This touring, students’ cash-seeking production of The Tempest was animated by two engaging intellectual concepts, but marred by a number of theatrical flaws. The two good ideas were simple but effective: the first was the decision to change both Sebastian and Stephano into female characters; the second was the portrayal of Prospero as a tired old man who cared little for his island. The town where this particular performance took place in – Coleraine – is a plantation town, one formed during the early seventeenth-century Plantation of Ulster. So, the existence of the town is predicated upon the early modern colonial energies that Shakespeare refracts (through Gonzalo who imagines ‘plantation of this isle’) in this late romance. Now, Coleraine is something of a backwards town. Despite its great University on its periphery, the town is synonymous with drug use, rain, reactionary politics, and sectarianism. Once a flagship for the Ulster Scottish, Protestant work ethic, Coleraine is now known only for Unionist disillusionment and malaise. In other words, Coleraine is a colonial production that was once crucial to an imperial project, but is now neither esteemed nor desired. The depiction, then, of an island that interests neither Milanese nor Neapolitan rang some anxious bells for the Coleraine audience.
- Simply, Prospero was a tired old man. He was portrayed with sensitivity by Matthew Sim in that Sim, an obviously fit, trim actor, carried his body with discipline to convey a sense of aged tiredness. He was rarely animated at all. Rather, this Prospero lacked energy. Significantly too, he lacked affectionate oral tone and body language. He was rarely kind or gentle. The exiled Prospero was bored with his island, disinterested. The island may have been strategically crucial for him once – now it was just an unloved launching pad to get back to Milan. Key to Prospero’s frustration with his loathed milieu was the ‘family’ that he was stuck with on the often-claustrophobic, dark stage. This ‘family’ consisted of Ariel, Caliban and Miranda. Ariel, neither quite human nor beast, writhed around a great deal: he seemed to spit out his words rather than speak. Clearly despised by Prospero, his body language betrayed his disposition of subjugated disgruntlement – he was as imprisoned and as resentful as Caliban. Prospero only seemed happy with Ariel whenever he performed some physical intervention for the exiled Duke, for example, when preventing the hot-headed attack on Prospero by the baffled Ferdinand or when propitiously providing a chair for his ailing master as he unenthusiastically croaked out the play’s anti-climatic ‘Epilogue’.
- Caliban was a charmless yob, revolting in appearance and personal habits – even he seemed to lack care for his island: his claims for dominion of the territory were inspired by a malevolent, spiteful rejection of Prospero’s civility rather than any sort of patriotic, anti-hegemonic desire for autonomy and self-determination. More intriguingly, Miranda was seen to be almost as untutored and uncouth as Caliban. Her clothes were cleaner than Caliban’s, but almost as ragged and unkempt: the rags’ shades of turquoise worked to complement the character’s fresh, slightly wild sense of the world’s newness. Played with great physicality by the young actress, Sarah Straker, Miranda behaved almost like a neophyte sister of Caliban. She rarely got off her knees, crawling on all fours, almost like a small, non-human mammal. She did grow in stature, literally becoming more vertical when she courted Ferdinand, who was played with a rather feckless desperation by Luciano Dodero: he didn’t want to be on this island either. When Miranda offered to help carry some of the Neapolitan Prince’s logs, it seemed that the impatient girl was mocking the toff-like Ferdinand for his unmasculine inability to carry out physical tasks. King Alonso, Ferdinand’s father, was rather forgettable. Played to exhibit lugubrious misery by Craig Tonks, Alonso too could not wait to get off this desolate, non-Italian island. Prospero was as impatient with Miranda as he was with Caliban. Despite the gravity of Miranda’s charges against Caliban – rape – their argument seemed more like a childish sibling squabble over the dinner table. Prospero needed Ariel to physically stop the children coming to blows right in front him: they were an unhappy, dysfunctional family on an inhospitable island. To me, this theatrical depiction of Prospero as a petty patriarch of a scrawny, loathsome family was both original and compelling.
- The second good idea was the feminising of Sebastian and Stephano. The roles were doubled up: displaying considerable dramatic virtuosity, Lucy Conway played both parts. This necessitated some textual cutting, but it was worthwhile because Conway’s plaintive voice as the inebriated Stephania added poignancy to a usually derisory, grotesque comic role. By turns giddy and maudlin, this sack-soaked Stephania was a lost case. She had clearly been devoted to Ben Gaule’s Trinculo at some point in the past, but had now succumbed to the alcohol-soft emptiness of a life without love or status. Conway was even more memorable for her portrayal of Antonio’s malevolent hanger-on, Sebastianne. The promises made to Sebastian by Antonio in Shakespeare’s text are rather vague and imprecise: depicting the character, then, as a devoted female brought a new understanding to the characters’ relationship of malice. Sebastianne, simply, loved Antonio: she was his Lady Macbeth, inspiring the macho Antonio to ambition and advancement through assassination. At the end of the play, as Prospero details the unconvincing peace process between Milan and Naples, Antonio and Sebastianne, disregarded and ignored, comforted each other, displaying a sense of disconsolation that is usually absent from this normally unrepentant and still-disdainful pair. But Sebastianne, quietly and almost imperceptively slunk off the stage, leaving Antonio: he was a Macbeth who failed totally, an unmanly disappointment to Sebastianne. Here, as well as improvising a heterosexual love story, the director, Jack Shepherd, brought out the latent homoeroticism in a play which is generally illuminated through sometimes inexplicable homosocial alignments.
- These two splendid innovations – the formulation of Prospero as bored father and tired governor and the invention of Sebastianne and Stephania – were, sadly, compromised by some rather sloppy technical flaws. The play began with great, exciting lighting: blue and white strobes flashed across the stage as the Boatswain contemptuously derided his posh, useless passengers. But there was some terrible lighting later on: Prospero sneaked in from the back of the theatre to spy on Ferdinand and Miranda. Moving stealthily, he should have been lit by a very narrow beam. Instead, he was rendered visible by a white light that coterminously lit up half the audience: so he was hardly inconspicuous! Was this a moment of meta-theatricality where the audience were all reminded that The Tempest is largely a play about the artifice of playmaking by being made to gaze on one another? Or was it simply dreadful lighting? There were other awkward moments in the performance. Antonio blusters about his invincibility, boasting about ‘how well my garments sit upon me’. This was a problem because the character’s clothes were actually drenched and ragged – he looked like he had indeed just been thrown of a sinking ship. Was the director calling for the audience to reflect upon the disparity between Antonio’s vainglorious discourse and his pathetic appearance? Or was this a simple lack of attention to theatrical detail?
- There was a similar moment of awkwardness when Miranda commentates on the first appearance of Ferdinand to her dubious, disinterested father (this Prospero cared only for a political marriage for Miranda, not some sort of companionate bliss for her and the Prince). Miranda, agitated by an erotic longing that she cannot yet understand, describes an energetic, watchful, sprite-like Ferdinand. ‘Lord, how it looks about!’ she exclaims. But Ferdinand, positioned on the other side of the stage, was absolutely static. Either we were meant to think that Miranda was deluded or the actors had not been directed to match their actions with the descriptions made by their colleagues. If Miranda says that Ferdinand ‘looks about’ with an energy conveyed through an exclamation mark in the text then he should ‘look about’ and not stand statue-like still. Towards the end of the play, Caliban and his ridiculous conspirators are chased by ferocious spirits in the guise of wild animals. This was rather unconvincing in this production because the ‘spirits’ were represented by a collection of very cute, fluffy plush toys. Hardly terrifying! There was one final problem with this fascinating but problematic production of the play: the director’s notes in the programme. Jack Shepherd makes a few good points about the comprehensibility issues and the fiscal constraints that challenge all practitioners in the tough world of Shakespearean theatre. But Shepherd makes a ludicrous, unasked-for, agricultural/chemical ‘explanation’ for what he debatably terms ‘the hallucinatory nature of the play’. ‘Rye’, he goes on, ‘contains an ergot, which contains lysergic acid, and when this gets into the bread supply, the population start [sic] to hallucinate’. So, Shakespeare is a sort of bread-eating psychedelic guru. This, of course, is craven nonsense: Shepherd, despite the flaws in this production of The Tempest is clearly a director of considerable motivation and talent. But he should, I think, eliminate the written explications and allow his actors to express his creativity for him through the cerebral and physical commitment that all actors need to perform convincingly the ever-difficult plays of Shakespeare.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
© 2008-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).