Terrific team tackles The Tempest

25 November 2021

David Zampatti is no fan of The Tempest. Is Black Swan’s “by popular demand” production going to change his mind?

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The Tempest, Black Swan State Theatre Centre ·
Octagon Theatre, 24 November, 2021 ·

Like William Shakespeare, former US president Barack Obama had a way with words – and never were truer ones spoken than his “elections have consequences” in 2009.

Black Swan State Theatre Company decided to have an election of its own this year – inviting its audience to nominate the Shakespeare play they would like to see close its 30th anniversary season.

The consequence is an energetic and imaginative production of The Tempest that papers over many of its shortcomings, but ultimately doesn’t justify the high opinion people seem to have of it.

Shakespeare wrote The Tempest at the very end of his career. It may have been the last play he wrote alone – it’s his last significant work – and revealingly, it’s his shortest play since his first, The Comedy of Errors, twenty-three years before.

My suspicion is that Shakespeare was tired, and maybe a little bored, and it shows. The Tempest inhabits the territory of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, but it lacks the humour, or the developed characters, of either.

The masterful language is still there, and The Tempest’s abiding popularity rests largely on a handful of immortal lines; Prospero’s “Stuff that dreams are made on” and “I’ll drown my book” speeches are high towers of language and thought, and many playwrights would swap their entire body of work for Miranda’s “O brave new world/ that has such people in’t”.

Zoe Atkinson’s needle of sand is a brilliant statement in its own right.Photo: Daniel James Grant

But the list of characters is a dubious prospect, even for a cast as impressive as this one. Prospero (Humphrey Bower) is a bit of a bore with inexplicable magic powers that render any opposition – and hence tension – futile, his daughter Miranda (Phoebe Sullivan) and the Neapolitan prince Ferdinand (Ian Wilkes) are lovable but insipid, and the baddies – a weak collection of nasty usurping and plotting aristocrats – are ridiculously easily dealt with by a bit of wave-of-the-hand Prospero wizardry actioned by his tame sprite Ariel (Pavan Kumar Hari).

Shakespeare also pulls a trio of prêt-à-porter knaves down from the rack, fills them up with booze and launches them on a fever dream of conquest and revenge – Prospero needs only wriggle his little finger to snuff that out, and – dare I say abracadabra – everyone is reconciled, reunited and pardoned, and Miranda’s much-discussed virginity can be satisfactorily dispensed with in the arms of Ferdinand.

I guess those who voted for The Tempest knew what they were getting, so it’s not constructive to bang on any further about the play’s shortcomings.

And there’s no denying that the director Matt Edgerton, his associate director Libby Klysz, the creative team and cast have achieved some marvellous effects throughout.

The introduction to the play, a rolling sequence of sea shanties and chants performed around the auditorium, sets the scene for the fateful shipwreck that begins the play proper, and that informal, inclusive style permeates throughout, and includes costuming “borrowed” from the audience and observations from its members on love and partnering, filmed as they were arriving.

Zoë Atkinson’s design, an arc of white sand captured by crescents of black staging is striking and capable. The effect of a needle of sand falling from the void onto the stage for the play’s duration – “like sands through the hour glass” – is a brilliant statement in its own right.

Kumar’s music, which he performs live with other cast members, is refined and quite beautiful, and Sam Chester’s movement direction, precisely integrated with Tim Collins’ sound design and Lucy Birkinshaw’s lighting, is an important contributor to the pace and style of the production.

Charlotte Otton steals every scene foolish enough to let her in. She is pictured here with Will O’Mahony. Photo: Daniel James Grant

There are undeniable comic opportunities in The Tempest, and the actors make the most of them; the thwarted murder attempt by Sebastia (Teresa Jakovich) and Antonia (Catherine Moore) – there’s much cross-gender casting, but it’s of no significance – is malevolently hilarious, and the drunken scenes with Caliban (Will O’Mahony), the jester Trincula (Caroline McKenzie) and Stephanie (Charlotte Otton) are riotous.

Otton is a star of Perth’s thriving independent theatre scene, and this is her main stage debut. Bold, brassy and combustible, she steals every scene foolish enough to let her in.

If any production of The Tempest was to change my pedantic, grumpy opinion of The Tempest, this would be it. And it’s not its fault that it doesn’t.

The Tempest continues at the Octagon Theatre until 11 December 2021.

Pictured top: Humphrey Bower as Prospero, and the cast of ‘The Tempest’. Photo: Daniel J Grant

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Author —
David Zampatti

David Zampatti has been a student politician, a band manager, the Freo Dockers’ events guy, a bar owner in California, The West Australian’s theatre critic and lots of other crazy stuff. He goes to every show he’s reviewing with the confident expectation it will be the best thing he’s ever seen.

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