The Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Cape Town in association with RSC
Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
When Ferdinand arrives on Prospero's island and is guided by spirits into the love-struck gaze of Miranda, the enslaved Ariel sings his karibu greeting. Lithely dancing, brandishing his spear-like staff, daubed from head to toe in intricately patterned ash, Ariel personifies the original native of this distant African island, subdued and imprisoned first by an invading witch, then released into serfdom by the shipwrecked and usurped duke from a far-off Italian land. Ariel is Africa, young and old, wise and naive, subdued and proud and desperate for freedom.
Janice Honeyman's impassioned production of The Tempest, presented by the South African Baxter Theatre Centre of Cape Town, in collaboration with the RSC, and starring our own South African import, Antony Sher, explodes onto the Courtyard stage in glorious multi-colour, multi-racial pageantry. Illka Louw's stunning set and costume designs evoke a windswept beach shrouded by a straggling swamp-weed encrusted tree which spreads its tentacled arms over actor and musician alike.
Prospero's army of sprites are African animal spirit dancers, magical ape-aping humans whose outfits and masks make perfect sense in this other world. Whether poking and pinching poor Caliban, or wafting flags of sleep over unwary Italian dignitaries, these spirits cavort and tumble and create outrageous monsters with slick and sensuous puppetry.
Antony Sher gives an impassioned performance as Prospero. This is truly a duke whose interest in the books of the occult have isolated him from the realities of life. When he dons his bedraggled cloak of witchcraft and wields his staff of magic, Sher turns his Prospero into a western witch-doctor, equally at home with his vicious five foot snake whip as he is with marking a magical circle of enchantment. When Prospero regains his dukedom and frees his beloved Ariel, Sher responds to this moment of loss and renewal with such complex emotional power that I, for one, felt tearful. Magnificent.
Atandwa Kani is likewise outstanding as Ariel. This is no androgynous spirit, no wisp of humanity that had once been imprisoned by the wicked Sycorax. Kani plays an Ariel who is young, athletic and humorously submissive to the strange man who released him from his tree-bound fate and now proffers freedom in exchange for mystical deeds. When he does gain his freedom, Ariel clambers up, up and away through the branches of the tree, never once looking back or apparently remembering his enslavement. True freedom requires no gratitude. True freedom requires no forgiveness. True freedom is merely the opportunity to realise personal potential and to forge a personal path.
Prospero has not been alone on the island. His daughter Miranda has also been with him. She has grown into a gorgeous, if somewhat wild and comically lice-infested, young woman whose leather garments hang seductively around her sun-blanched limbs. Tinarie Van Wyk Loots is delicious as Miranda, all wide-eyed innocence and blossoming sexuality. When she meets the man of her unimaginable dreams -- the impossibly body-toned Ferdinand (Charlie Keegan) -- there is a chemistry of love and lust which defies even the hardest heart.
So many fine performances. Wayne Van Rooyen's rubber-faced Trinculo was greeted with hoots of laughter especially from the youngest members of the audience. His side-kick Stephano (Elton Landrew) brought a refreshing originality to his comic role. Ivan Abrahams played the honest old Gonzalo with a hint of Mahatma Ghandi, while Jeremy Crutchley was grand and authoritative as the grief-stricken father and King of Naples.
Outstanding, however, was John Kani as Caliban. Kani scurried across the stage, back bent and supporting himself on two bedraggled walking sticks which seemed to grow out of his arms. This Caliban, also an outsider and offspring of the hated Sycorax, was monstrous not in physical appearance but in his otherness. Almost anthropomorphic in his animalistic portrayal, Kani's Caliban could, like Ariel, also find a dignity with eventual freedom. When Prospero leaves the island, Caliban triumphantly casts away his sticks and stretches his body straight and true, basking in his island's moonlit wonder.
This is The Tempest that any adult or child would love. Reduced to just over two hours in length, it thunders on at a cracking pace. Funny and heart-warming and incredibly intelligent in its relocation of Shakespeare's fantasy to an African world, The Tempest is the production I would choose to introduce any age to the joys of theatre. Magnificent and moving and symbolically topical all in one.
At Stratford until 14th March, then touring to Richmond, Leeds, Bath, Nottingham and Sheffield
Reviewer: Kevin Quarmby