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March 1, 2004 | by  | in Theatre |
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The Tempest

An early chance for students to orient themselves in Victoria University culture always presents itself each February with the Summer Shakespeare production. This year, Sara Brodie, who received her Master’s in Theatre from Vic, directed what was probably the Bard’s final and most musical play, the Tempest. Victoria University Drama Club began the tradition of staging Shakespeare outside 22 years ago, and venues have ranged from the Quad to the amphitheatre at Studio 77. For 2004 Brodie wanted to upscale the production, ‘get the stadium seating, for example, and just make it a bigger gig’, which involved a return to the Dell in the Botanical Gardens, and throwing the auditions out to the wider community, instead of sticking exclusively to Victoria students.

Now it’s a hard job making an old play seem fresh without coming across as gimmicky, especially when it’s been performed for nearly four hundred years. The Tempest revolves around the machinations of the wizard Prospero, exiled from the duchy of Milan by his brother and the King of Naples, both of whom find themselves shipwrecked (with others) on the island that he happens to inhabit with his daughter Miranda, the spirit Ariel, and the monster Caliban. Brodie remained humble about her own interpretation of this classic play. ‘We live in New Zealand, with Pacific Islanders and we are a Pacific island. To place it in the Pacific seem[ed] the obvious choice.’

The Pacific also related well to what Brodie saw as the main conflict in the play, namely that of art versus nature, embodied in Prospero’s struggle to justify his use of magic for revenge. In the scene of Prospero’s climactic repentance, instead of the usual pageant of Greek goddesses followed by ‘certain reapers’, four stunning banners are raised, depicting a nuclear mushroom cloud above Mururoa Atoll. ‘It represents man’s destruction and his power to destroy, and inhumanity to fellow man,’ Brodie said – charges that could just as easily be levelled against Prospero.

The rest of the pieces fell in nicely. The bumbling, inebriated clowns were dressed in costumes from the 1770s – Stephano wore a hat like Captain Cook – whereas the regal entourage were clothed in suits with red Polynesian sashes sewn under their lapels. Sparse use of props (except for musical instruments) showed ingenuity – long, thickly spliced rope doubled as both the rigging for the ship and bonds by which the invisible spirits could control the humans – as well as fidelity to the simple, earthy Polynesian and elemental motifs used throughout. The minimalist set highlighted the beautiful banners, which were also used to represent the ship’s sails. Traditional songs ‘Full Fathom Five’ and ‘Where the Bee Sucks’ were modernised and placed alongside original songs from Samoa and the Solomon Islands.

By setting the play in the Pacific, the Summer Shakespeare troupe managed to avoid the racial commentary usually associated with the Tempest. Caliban was played by a Pacific Island actor alright, but it made little difference as around half of the cast were of Maori or Pacific ethnicity, including Prospero. The Tempest is about isolation, and Brodie didn’t want to make an issue of the races of the cast.

‘All I wanted to do was cast somebody capable of playing Prospero, and cast people who could do the roles,’ Brodie said. ‘So as far as my cultural stance was concerned, I didn’t have one until I auditioned everyone.’ She was, for the most part, bang on with her casting. Asalemo La Tofete played Prospero, both the stern father and scheming avenger well, with a maturity that is really needed for such a pivotal, anchoring role. So commanding and credible was his performance that the gusts of wind, bellowing as he first ordered Miranda to be collected, seemed orchestrated, not coincidental. The clowns, Caliban and Ariel all relished their chances for comedy, and even the weaker roles, such as the royals or Miranda, managed to eke some realistic motivations and emotions out of the little help that Shakespeare had given them. While a great deal of the play was cut – Brodie estimates ‘about forty percent of the lines’ – the dancing and singing did not compromise the power of the Shakespeare’s verse and prose, evidence that Brodie’s scrutiny of the script had been scrupulous.

The play ended conclusively, with repentance and resolution for all bar Caliban. Perhaps the best trick was saved for last, with the chorus of Prospero’s spirits singing the epilogue, clapping rhythmically as they did so. As the audience joined in I realised that this was subtly turning into the applause that they had just craved. Similarly thoughtful uses of theatrical techniques to update Shakespeare’s script provided perhaps the most memorable moment of the 2004 production: Ariel’s first entry was preceded by a shaking of the trees, first from stage right, then – incongruously – from the other side.

The insular location, hidden behind the Rose Gardens, away from the bustling traffic, also suited the Tempest admirably, for in this tranquil oasis lurked the very eye of the storm. The logistical nightmare of staging the play outside had its advantages though, with the verdant outdoors only enhancing the spectacle, sending whistling winds or cloud cover when they were needed. Brodie was not unaware of this: ‘At least with the Tempest if it rains people will forgive it. It kind of adds to the play.’

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