The Tempest

William Shakespeare
Lazarus Theatre Company in association with Greenwich Theatre
Greenwich Theatre
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Prospero’s enchanted island is a light-framed hexagon etched into the floor of the Greenwich Theatre stage in this inventive and thought-provoking production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest by Lazarus Theatre Company.

It is also the locus of Prospero’s power—as he says, “this cell’s my court”. One side of the geometric demesne, at the front of the stage, is a sort of shoreline which opens up into the deep sea beneath the stage. Director Ricky Dukes thus effectively mimics the limited resources of the Elizabethan stage but supplements them with evocative lighting design which gradually mutates from aquamarine and indigo at the start to a warmer yellow and rose of reconciliation at the close.

The play opens with “a tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning”, all whistles, cries, thunderclaps, and cracks. And, the storm is well-staged here. Sliding, revolving figures, bathed in a maelstrom of light and sound, suggest both turbulence and, as a pair of drowning dancers essay a slow waltz, the strange slow-motion of unfolding tragedy.

The Tempest certainly is a ‘noisy’ play and, as was the case in its production of Marlowe’s Edward II last year, Lazarus sets the text against a pounding beat. This is my only real misgiving about the conception. For, there is also a magical silence on the island which, like the unpleasant sound of tempest and fire, embodies Prospero’s power. “I will plague them all, / Even to roaring,” he may say of Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano, but he asserts his authority by demanding silent obedience and submission when Ariel requests his liberty—“If thou murmurst I will rend an oak / And peg thee in his knotty entrails”—and when Miranda questions him about her origins: “Silence! One word more / Shall make me chide thee… Hush!”

An ever-changing music runs through Shakespeare’s play, from the songs of Ariel and Stephano to the “heavenly music” that Prospero summons to release his enemies from their enchantment. But Lazarus’s incessant, ear-thumping soundtrack too often forces the actors to compete and not all of them can do so without resorting to shouting.

The proves most inappropriate, paradoxically, when Caliban explains, “The isle is full of noises, / Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.” These noises are mysterious: it’s not clear if they are the literal sounds of the island or are the result, like Ariel’s music, of Prospero’s magic. Caliban’s words, so different from anything he has said thus far and thus so compelling, convey his sensitivity to the wondrous beauty of the island and the depth of his attachment to it.

Caliban—a “monster” who is subjected to a stream of abusive name-calling through the play—has something within him that Stephano, Prospero and, by implication, the audience do not. This is all the more remarkable given the prevailing contemporary thought on ‘the Other’ as expressed by Montaigne in his essay Of the Cannibales. Caliban’s lines transport us to a hypnotic dreamworld. Dukes’s decision that Georgina Barley’s Caliban should yell and shriek these lines to an ear-splitting drum track, fracturing the rhythm and obliterating the poetry, totally destroys the power and significance of this speech and indeed alters the ‘meaning’ of the whole play.

It’s a pity because there is so much else to admire about this production. The modern-dress costumes work well, Prospero forming a vibrant oasis of clashing crimson and green amid the prevailing monochrome. The choreography around and within the hexagon—and indeed around the theatre, as characters enter from the side stairwells leading into the auditorium or from the rear of the latter—creates a persuasive sense of movement. The few props do effective service.

And, though the characters hail from Italy (and the only reference to England in the text is Antonio’s mocking remark that were he to be in England, and put Caliban ‘on show’, “not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver; there would this monster make a man.”), there seems to be a wry dig at English presumption, and perhaps colonialism, as gents’ umbrellas serve as swords, Trinculo sips his wine from a china teacup and sports Union Jack underpants.

We’re used to gender-blind casting now, but there’s a deliberate intention in the casting of Micha Colombo as a ballgown-attired Prospero and Alexander Da Fonseca as her ‘son’, Miranda. Usually, Prospero’s motives seem ambiguous. Does he want power? Or, simply to regain his dukedom after its unjust usurpation? Is he driven by vengeance or hatred? But, here, such uncertainty is replaced by a portrait of motherly devotion: Prospero acts to protect and nurture her son.

There is some loss of suggestiveness and there is little hint of the menace and malice that Prospero’s magic embodies and conjures, but Colombo conveys Prospero’s authority and gives a focused performance. Da Fonseca’s Miranda is buoyant bubble of wide-eyed wonder, though he doesn’t quote capture the sincerity of Miranda’s eloquent empathy.

Abigail Clay is a gamine, restless Ariel, curling and curving her shoulders and back as she circles in wide steps but, again, the presentation of Prospero alters the nature of her relationships and there is little of the frustration and anger which temper Ariel’s sense of duty to her mistress when he reminds Prospero of her promise to free him. However, the climax of Prospero’s revenge, when Antonio, Alonso and the Lords are confronted with their crimes and threatened with punishment, is a terrific coup de théâtre, Ariel swooping in like an avenging harpy, seemingly having flown straight out of a Gustave Doré etching.

There is considerable excision of the text (which has been sliced down to an hour and three-quarters) and inevitably this reduces the nuance and depth of some characters. Aaron Peters’s Ferdinand makes little impression and I could not believe in his relationship with Miranda; there is, fortunately, no attempt to draw attention to the gender of the two lovers, but the gestures of Miranda’s naïve incredulity and astonishment do veer towards camp at times.

The subplot, as Stephano (James Altson) and Trinculo (David Clayton) drunkenly roam around the island plotting Alonso’s murder, is excellently done; Altson, in particular, delivers the poetry with assurance and clarity.

I wondered how the masque would be staged, particularly as its themes of bounty and fertility, as well as the presence of Iris and Ceres, goddesses of fecundity and fruitfulness, often seem to make it a ‘feminine’ space in the play. The clothing of Dukes’s male goddesses hints at the military, but the masque itself is a fitting image of harmony, a ritual blessing by Prospero of the blindfolded lovers and their marriage, as golden grain patters down into many-hued upturned umbrellas (Iris is the goddess of the rainbow, Ceres is a symbol of agricultural), like a confetti dowry.

Here, Colombo’s Prospero evinces a spiritual authority; indeed, the scene evokes another tale of trials within enchanted lands, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and Sarastro’s blessing of Tamino and Pamina after they have survived their ordeals by fire and water.

There is a welcome quelling of the restless and raucousness from the masque onwards. Conor Hadfield delivers Gonzalo’s words of self-knowledge, understanding and hope with dignity. And in Colombo’s transition from exultant confidence at the start of the final act to compassionate honesty and humility at the close, we finally hear the full poetry of Shakespeare’s text. Her abjuration of her “rough magic” may not be an awe-striking incantation, but it is a very human avowal. As she tosses her velvet cloak and sorcerer’s staff into the chasm at the front of the stage and, after clutching them briefly to her heart, lets her ‘books’ plunge after them into the bottomless sea, “deeper than did ever plummet sound”, there is not so much pathos at the renunciation of power or a struggle with inner emotions that waver between pity and punishment, but rather a pleasure in the fulfilment of maternal duty.

The audience were rightly appreciative. One hopes they will return to Greenwich Theatre to see Lazarus perform Lord of the Flies and Salomé in March and May respectively.

Claire Seymour