Sunday, December 11, 2022

The Tempest



 The Tempest by William Shakespeare.  Sydney Theatre Company at Roslyn Packer Theatre, November 15 – December 21, 2022.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
December 10

Director Kip Williams
Set Designer Jacob Nash
Costume Designer Elizabeth Gadsby
Lighting Designer Nick Schlieper
Composer & Sound Designer Stefan Gregory
Dramaturg Shari Sebbens
Associate Director Jessica Arthur
Fight & Movement Director Nigel Poulton
Associate Fight & Movement Director Tim Dashwood
Intimacy Coordinator Chloë Dallimore
Voice & Text Coach Charmian Gradwell

Ariel – Peter Carroll; Antonio – Jason Chong; Sebastian – Chantelle Jamieson
Alonso – Mandy McElhinney; Ferdinand – Shiv Palekar
Prospero – Richard Roxburgh; Miranda – Claude Scott-Mitchell
Caliban – Guy Simon; Stephano – Aaron Tsindos; Gonzalo – Megan Wilding
Trinculo – Susie Youssef
Understudies – Danielle King; Ian Michael; Nicole Milinkovic

Photos – Daniel Boud

Shive Palekar and Claude Scott-Mitchell
as Ferdinand and Miranda
in The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Sydney Theatre Company 2022


A 1972 Performance Syndicate production of The Tempest received critical and popular acclaim, being remounted and taken on tour until 1974.  

Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, 2021

Because The Tempest has played a leading role in my working life as a drama teacher, and later as theatre reviewer, I was not as enthusiastic as the rest of the audience seemed to be when the final spotlight faded on Richard Roxborough, standing atop his rock, as Prospero, appealing to us “In this bare island…release me from my bands…With the help of your good hands…[or else] my ending is despair”.

Rex Cramphorn was born on 10th January 1941, one day younger than me and tragically died of AIDs in 1991.  The influence of that 1972 production, taking up the work of Peter Brook and especially Jerzy Grotowski’s “Poor Theatre” approach, was the basis of the group improvisation workshop teaching format which I and, over some 16 years, several colleagues developed, reaching its climax in the 1992 Hawker College Drama course.  Our public performances had begun in 1976 with The Tempest using mime and group sound effects to a narration by Prospero, the students working with a local community group, Melba Players.  The always-present cast encircled Prospero, representing the island, moving into his space for action and out to the edge as scenes required.  The student-designed backdrop showed a huge almost menacing eye watching.

Sydney Theatre Company grew out of the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) with Richard Wherrett as first artistic director in 1979.  I attended a professional development workshop with Wherrett, who had worked with Cramphorn in Nimrod Theatre, including a 1977 production of The Duchess of Malfi.   Peter Carroll, playing Ariel wonderfully today, was in that production, while in the year before John Bell had directed A Handful of Friends at Nimrod.

I sat with Bell to watch his Bell Shakespeare production of The Tempest in 2015 (reviewed here August 29, 2015).

Two aspects I found to be missing in Kip Williams’ production, which lost connection with my expectations from this history.  To quote my Bell review:

First: “It was the creation of a spirit world that had inspired me about Cramphorn’s work.  It was a world of philosophic enquiry, where the island became the universe, a place of wonder and mystery….Though Cramphorn (and I) had kept all our actors in the circle on stage throughout, as if there were no other place to be, even for those not active in the scene, Bell used the circle as an ever-changing space into and out of which characters come and go….and the movement exciting and telling: the balance between fantasy and reality, or rather the fact that both exist at one and the same time, is made in the movement design and the capacity of the actors to work as dancers….”

Second: Bell “shows us Miranda as the girl brought up in the wild – she hisses at Caliban with animal ferocity.  Now the hormones of developing sexuality lock her onto the quite proper young man, Ferdinand.” And shows us Caliban  “representing rebellion.  It makes him a genuinely serious threat to Miranda’s safety, which Prospero must defend, while we also realise that Caliban is justified in hating Prospero, in parallel to Ariel’s position – though Ariel is more like an indentured labourer, while Caliban is enslaved.”

In today’s presentation, with the island so dominated by the rock, and the circle established only at the very end by fire, the island becomes not so much a “universe, a place of wonder and mystery” as a place of threat and fear where dancing and our enthusiastic clapping have little effect.

On another hand, today’s Caliban is angry because his ownership of the island is stolen from him, just as in Shakespeare’s play – but Shakespeare’s view is uncompromising.  Those in power will never give the land back.  Caliban (and even the naïve comics Stephano and Trinculo) are chased off with no mercy.  Prospero makes it clear to Ariel: “Let them be hunted soundly.  At this hour / Lies at my mercy all mine enemies.”  There is no Gough Whitlam pouring sand into the hand of Vincent Lingiari.  The best for Caliban finally is to accept Prospero’s pardon – can you believe?

The irony of Prospero’s final appeal to us is lost in this production of The Tempest.  “As you from crimes would pardon’d be,/ Let your indulgence set me free”.  Kip Williams’ Prospero, who gives Caliban his island back, is a romance at best.  Shakespeare knew he wouldn’t, and knows that possession is ten points of the law.  Caliban can have his island only because Prospero has regained his Milan and has no more need of the rock.  Why should we indulge him?  All he wants is for us not to even make him say sorry, despite his crime of invading Caliban’s land; and to praise him for making Caliban think he should “seek for grace”.  Whose grace?  It’s as if he has to say sorry to Prospero.

Maybe if we can get enough of us Prosperos to pass the proposed referendum for the Voice from the Heart, we might prove Shakespeare wrong.

The odd effect of making this The Tempest more of a political play than a philosophical play is that the style or presentation is technically brilliant, in lighting, sound effects, and real flames (which was perhaps how Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre burnt down), but the detail of the words and Shakespeare’s use of language was too often lost.  In the very first storm scene, yelling in fear of the lightning overcame the play between Gonzales, Sebastian, Antonio and the Boatswain, with the Boatswain trying to get the upper class passengers out of the way so he can get on with his job of saving them, if possible.

Prospero’s telling of his story to Miranda became, as she says: “Your tale, sir, would cure deafness”, as a teenager might carry on; but the problem was that I couldn’t follow the story either as it was pumped out at her, rather than being the lengthy (to her interminable) expression of his feelings about what happened.  He tries hard to explain everything to her, as Shakespeare wrote it.  Although she may get bored, we must not be.  But, I’m sorry to say, I was, because I didn’t hear and sense his feelings at each point.

In terms of theatrical effect the production is outstanding for the most part, though I did think the music was sometimes less prominent in the soundscape than it should have been.  But in terms of drama effect – of our emotional responses to what characters were saying and how they were behaving – it was Stephano, Trinculo and Caliban who made it through to me best, until the very end.  The final speech by Prospero, isolated on his rock, with its background rumbling thunder, made it through and, I think, was the effect that made the applause happen – and continue as the cast took to the stage around the rock.

So my feelings about the show as a whole are mixed.  Kip Williams writes “Nature is a pivotal character in any reading of The Tempest, and in our production we have sought to bring this aspect of the text to the very fore.”  As I see it, Nature is the spirit, wonder and mystery, but the text and the subtleties of expression and emotions – the details – of the relationships between the characters have to be to the very fore.

The ring of fire
in The Tempest
Sydney Theatre Company 2022