Review: THE TEMPEST at Little Theatre, University Of Adelaide

Another of Shakespeare's plays from the Guild.

Review: THE SUICIDE at The Studio, Holden Street Theatres

Reviewed by Ewart Shaw, Friday 24th March 2023.

Charm is a magic device, glamour an illusion, and to spell is a verb to call on great power, and not just a schoolroom duty.

The Tempest, one of Shakespeare's last plays, a story of the discovery of love and forgiveness on a magical island, receives a not entirely satisfactory opening in the Little Theatre. Bronwyn Palmer makes her Theatre Guild directorial debut, having played Oberon in the recent, A Midsummer Night's Dream. There are moments of magic.

The predominantly young cast is led by Jack Robins's well-articulated Prospero, a man whose failure to lead Milan led to his downfall and exile. There is strong support from Bronwyn Ruciak, as Alonso, and Ann Portus's aging counsellor, Gonzalo, is completely engaging, a lovely cameo.

There's a challenge, though, built into the casting.

"The king, your mother", aye, there's the rub. In Shakespeare's The Tempest, goddesses aside, there is one female role, Prospero's daughter, Miranda. In this production, directed by Bronwyn Palmer, eight male characters are presented by women, and that's nine if you count Ariel. The challenge then, if you know the play at all, is to rethink what you see against what you hear. Is she the bad brother? Is she his father? Do the women play as men? Is it important that there is some consistency in the pronouns? It was an issue in the recent, A Midsummer Night's Dream. It obviously gives women more stage time, and recently both Dame Helen Mirren and Alex Kingston have played Prospera, Duchess of Milan. The play's theme of clemency, of forgiveness of sins, through love, grows from masculine, indeed, patriarchal, power and its fragility. Calamity sets a king, a duke, and their courtiers on a desert island, with only the clothes they stand up in. They must search for company, shelter, food, and a way home. They are at risk from wild animals and, in this play, two of them are at risk of assassination by their own trusted family and friends. It is the burgeoning love between Miranda and Ferdinand that brings it all together.

In her program note Bronwyn Palmer explains that the play is set "in one of the Great Pacific garbage patches... a horrifying and immovable example of mankind's ability to justify our waste and actions for convenience." That explains the heap of garbage bags that makes up much of the set. It also explains the shoulder sash of detritus that Prospero wears, instead of a magical garment, and Miranda's toy collection. It's there in John Charles's rags as a truculent Caliban. Palmer further localises the action to Australia by making Trinculo and Stephano, Annie Matsouliadis and Stephanie Dalziel, bogans. Crikey! Ellie Schaefer's Miranda is a cheeky and engaging brat and her scenes with Theodoros Papaziz's Ferdinand are sweet.

One of Shakespeare's great gifts to us is the names he gives to his young women; Perdita, Miranda, and, indeed, Ariel. There's an Ariel in the cast, and Finty McBain, as the good spirit, has a warm and natural presence.

Stripping away the romance and the magic, including the idea that the playwright is saying goodbye to the magic of theatre, makes it impossible now to ignore the colonial factors in the play. "This island's mine by Sycorax, my mother", says Caliban, and Prospero's treatment of his servants, mortal and magical, is a clear representation of the paternalist mindset. We may love or, in this case, miss the wondrous mage controlling the elements, who then abjures all magic in an act of forgiveness and abnegation, but Shakespeare's text is not clouded about his motivations.

The costumes are simple. Pretty much everyone will reappear draped in a spray-painted coverall to move the set units and fill the Little Theatre stage with swirling tidal bodies, as part of the movement ensemble. They almost overflow the stage, but the balcony of the theatre is entirely ignored. There are sweet noises from a capella female voices, but the heart of me wanted more of the music inherent in the story. The scene changes and set movements will speed up across the run but, on the opening night, the overarching energy was barely achieved, and Shakespeare's words did not call forth the magic inherent in his lines.

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