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Prospero's Island

David Calcutt
Midlands Actors Theatre
Live Theatre, Newcastle, and touring
(2004)

In his programme notes on writing the play, David Calcutt tells us that initially he set out to write a "prequel" to The Tempest but, in the event, it turned out to be an "alternative version" in which Prospero is not the Duke of Milan but the servant to a magician who steals his master's robe, staff and book and escapes from Milan by ship. He is then thrown overboard in the midst of a terrible storm which the crew believe he has caused by what he is. He is washed up on the island, meets Sycorax, and so the story starts.

We follow his adventures as he becomes her husband and the father of Caliban. We see her older son, Ariel, imprisoned in a log and watch as Sycorax creates Miranda out of flowers. We see Propsero's triumphant destruction of his wife and listen as he rewrites "history" to create the story of Shakespeare's play.

It's an interesting idea and full of possibilities but it doesn't come really come off. Partially this is due to some bad production choices - Sycorax wearing a mask which distorted her voice just enough to make her words difficult to follow, for example, and a scene of choreographed "passion" which was so tame and conventional in its conception that it was almost risible - but mainly because it is too wordy.

There can be no quarrel with long speeches which carry the action forward - Greek tragedy relies upon them and Shakespeare himself has been known to use them! - but they must do so and not circle around the action, which is what happens all too often here. Calcutt manages to include lots of quotes and near-quotes of Shakespeare plays, mainly but not exclusively The Tempest, but they seem to be there because they are quotes, not because they lend depth or relevance to the speech. At one point it feels as though Prospero finds a human bone which has been washed up by the sea just so he can say "of his bones are coral made". And it has to be said that there were some longueurs about which the actors could do nothing: they were inherent in the writing.

The cast of five - Lincoln James (Prospero), Lola (Sycorax), Alex Falkowski (Ariel), Carl Coleman (Caliban) and Manjeet Mann (Miranda) - work well together, swapping characters effectively when necessary, Coleman in particular making a delightful Caliban. I was not, however, convinced that we saw "the foul witch Sycorax" nor did she exhibit the raw sexuality that the part called for.

The set (a little reminiscent of that for the RSC production some years ago when Melanie Thaw played Miranda) works well, although it and the lighting do lack atmosphere.

All in all, an interesting idea which doesn't quite come off.

"Prospero's Island" tours until 26th March

Reviewer: Peter Lathan