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The Tempest by William Shakespeare - Review

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by Jon Cocks (subscribe)
I'm a freelance writer living in the Adelaide Hills.
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Inventive staging, tight ensemble
Photographer: Chris Best.

Adelaide Uni Theatre Guild has been around a long time, doing excellent theatre at the Little Theatre in the cloisters. Once again, Shakespeare is the feature: The Tempest in this instance, his final play. The Tempest cast features Jack Robins (Prospero) with John Charles (Caliban), Ellie Schaefer (Miranda), Finty McBain (Ariel), Theodoros Papazis (Ferdinand), Susan Cilento (Antonio), Annie Matsouliadis (Trinculo), Emily Dalziel (Stephano), Bronwyn Ruciak (Alonso), Harry Ollerenshaw (Sebastian), Ann Portus (Gonzalo), and Ariel 'Inkie' Elliott-Potter, Amelia Holds, Bhavya Kulathunga and Maxwell Whigham filling the minor roles and being part of the movement ensemble.

The compact theatre's thrust stage lends itself well to imaginative staging. Director (and set designer) Bronwyn Palmer and her assistant Mark Wickett used the entire space within to create Shakespeare's enchanted island, from the area above the auditorium, the steps down to the stage and the multi-purpose tower structure upstage centre. The detritus spread across the stage suggests that this island is a repository for rubbish and suggests a twenty-first-century perspective in which Prospero has come down in the world from a once-high station, clever imagery that gains further traction with the occasional non-Shakespearean outburst, sometimes verbal, as when Miranda cries out: 'Dad!' just as an embarrassed contemporary teenager might do, or when Stephano paddles Trinculo's backside with a rubber thong.

Jack Robins as Prospero. Photographer: Chris Best.

Prospero is the rightful Duke of Milan, but his brother Antonio usurped him with the help of the King of Naples. Prospero's plan is for his nubile young daughter Miranda to fall in love with Fernando, the son of the King of Naples, after he is reinstated as the Duke of Milan, thus shoring up his regal standing. Prospero has been confined to the magical island formerly inhabited by the witch Sycorax and has magically acquired sorcerer powers. Robins plays it with a compact kind of dignity. In many ways, he is above the action, a puppet master, but his manner remains matter-of-fact and he retains his gravitas, right up until Prospero's final speech, in which he pronounces: 'my staff I'll bury, my books I'll drown.' Ellie Schaefer invests significant energy to enliven Miranda, especially in the opening scene when he begins to instruct her on what to expect in life as she reaches adulthood.

Prospero's servant-sprite Ariel keeps him informed of events abroad and he has enslaved the island's only other inhabitant, the brutish Caliban, son of the dead witch. Finty McBain's Ariel is a highlight of the show. She wafts about the stage with the elegance of a dancer and sings sweetly from the rafters, leading choruses of ghostly chants to haunt the stranded seafarers. John Charles is a beefy individual who would not look out of place on a rugby field. His is a vibrant, physical characterisation of Caliban.

The ship bearing Prospero's enemies approaches the island with his treacherous brother aboard, and Prospero conjures the tempest. The rest of the action takes place on the island. The movement ensemble ensures swift set changes. The ensemble work was a highlight of the play, the group working as a well-oiled team whether to change the sett or to set upon a drunken Trinculo and Stephano or working as a team playing Prospero's spirits summoned in his final act as a sorcerer and as the ship's crew in the imaginatively staged opening scene aboard the ship that founders off Prospero's island, when it is brought undone by the tempest Prospero has summoned through his agent, Ariel.

The masque after the interval demonstrates inventiveness with limited resources, as the performers made a startling appearance. Song and movement present us with Shakespeare's timeless message of the sanctity of marriage. The stately control of the masque is intended to be the yin to the yang that was the chaotic tempest, control after madness. The well-drilled ensemble manages this beautifully and some interesting oceanic imagery fills the digitally projected backdrop.

Director Palmer keeps true to Shakespeare's apparent intentions that the play is primarily a comedy, which is best exemplified by the excellent combination of Dalziel and Matsouliadis as the drunken Stephano and Trinculo, who find and recruit Caliban, who is desperate to wreak revenge on Prospero for enslaving him. Palmer has Robins upstage on the right, on a little pedestal, observing the drunken antics of the duo. This simple device reminds us that Prospero is calling all the shots and through his magic and the manipulation of his sprite Ariel, the shipwrecked crew of conspirators are all finding their way to him.

My concern was for the disparity in time between acts. A full one hundred minutes pass before the interval, after which the action moves more swiftly to its conclusion, forty minutes later. While acknowledging that the Bard was a master of poetic expression, twenty-first-century audiences are not going to absorb it all. I have for a long time felt that judicious snipping of the longer speeches is justified. This play would be better and move more engagingly towards interval, if twenty, even thirty minutes were cut. Act One at seventy minutes and Act Two at forty would be kinder.
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Why? How often do you get the chance to see Shakespeare's last play for a mere $25
Where: Little Theatre, Cloisters, Adelaide Uni
Cost: $25/20
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