Shakespeare with continuing relevance

Issue 

The Tempest
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Neil Armfield
Belvoir Street Theatre, Sydney, until July 2
Reviewed by Helen Jarvis

Neil Armfield's production of The Tempest launches the new Company B series at Belvoir Street, part of its 10th anniversary celebration. And a truly celebratory production it is.

Barry Otto's Prospero is like no other I have seen — he shows us the human and pathetic side of the man, not just the magician and the manipulator, so keenly developed in John Bell's rendition of Prospero in Armfield's award-winning 1990 production, also at Belvoir Street.

Cate Blanchett, better known to television viewers and to audiences of the Sydney Theatre Company and Melbourne's Playbox, makes her first appearance with Company B as a compelling Miranda; she manages to lift the part from its usual titillating transition from innocence to womanhood.

A truly splendiferous Stephano is played by Keith Robinson in that much acclaimed Popular Mechanicals style.

Another real gem of the production is Kevin Smith's Caliban. I must admit I had reservations about the decision to cast an Aboriginal actor as the "savage" Caliban, and still felt uneasy in his first few moments on stage, but he gives a new depth to Caliban's story of dispossession and maltreatment by Prospero, followed only by ridicule and teasing by his new "masters". Smith's strength and bearing brought the character to one with dignity — the Australian allusion emphasised by his costume of a cast-off scarlet British officer's coat and a loincloth.

Neil Armfield writes in his Director's Notes, "More than anything else, The Tempest seems to be a play about control: the desire for control emerges as the motivating principle of human behaviour ... And yet it is the abandonment of Prospero's control that actually provides the great counter movement of the drama ... On the one hand the plot draws to an all encompassing fusion of Prospero's power, yet ticking underneath all this is the clock which will require Prospero to unburden and surrender. The incalculable mystery in all this is mercy ..."

Control of individuals and control of territories are the two sides of the human experience explored by Shakespeare in The Tempest. Both have their relevance here in this place at this time.