by Scott Russell, Queen’s University, Belfast
The Tempest, a late romance that explores the thematic wonderings of race, love, and patriarchal control is often labelled as ambiguous. Is Prospero an overreaching imperialist, a solicitous father or a repentant representation of the Bard himself? Caliban, in particular, often personifies this ambivalence, with dark and monstrous interactions, between himself and others, breaching the play’s domestic mode; disrupting its harmonious ending with the threat of being “pinch’d to death.” The Belfast Tempest, a brand-new adaptation by Terra Nova Productions, attempts to break down these somewhat sinister boundaries through an emphasis on local yet diverse communities. To quote Andrea Montgomery, Terra Nova’s Artistic Director, this version shall “showcase Belfast as a City moving towards a bright, creative and intercultural future – which offers so much potential and opportunity to all its citizens.” Togetherness is to be brought about through racial, gendered and cultural difference.
While speaking with several of the play’s cast members, I was given an opportunity to ask about The Tempest‘s altered gender roles. Four of its principle characters (Alonso, Gonzalo, Antonio and Stephano) are being portrayed by female actors this time around. Moninne Dargan, stressed the timeless nature of her character (Gonzala), accentuating her characterisation in performance, rather than her gender: “The essence of the character is the same. It’s a loyal character; the character is providing a little bit of balance and tends to look a bit on the bright side. So once you find out who the character is and what their relationships are with the other characters, then just look at the point that it’s a woman and take it from there.” The positivity of Gonzala’s “charity” and “gentleness” will shine through despite the Jacobean expectation of her gender’s marginalisation, and silence, at the behest of her male counterparts.
This debunking of preconceived Renaissance norms, in the spirit of communal optimism, is further heightened through Nicola Gardner’s interpretation of Queen Alonsa. After asking Gardner about her thoughts on his gender reversal, she seemed positively elated: “I think it’s fair to say that this is a fantastic opportunity, and that Andrea Montgomery has not only produced an inter-cultural production, but she’s also given females a chance to interpret characters that have always been traditionally played by males. So being given that opportunity — the first thing I did was to get to grips with Alonso [King of Naples] as a character — to find out all about him, and then to simply make Alonso into Alonsa, a Queen. Using my imagination, I am now a Queen of quite a large region, and I have Dukes, I have children who are princes and princesses, etcetera. That hasn’t been done before, in history. I think I must be the first Queen Alonsa ever, and that certainly is something that is very special.” Gardner’s words not only indicate an empowered spirit at the thought of playing a female, high-status role, but they also signal an enhanced perspective on community. The Queen of Naples has been characterised as a figurehead, a mother and a potential jointress for Miranda’s suggestive “score of kingdoms” in the final scene.
Alonsa’s difference does not end at gender, however, as she is also played by a black British actress. In most productions, save for Caliban, who is more than readily associated with African slavery, almost all of the principal characters are conceived as white. In the interests of shattering racial stereotypes, which promote animality, distance, and fear whenever referenced in Shakespeare’s works, Terra Nova Productions has sought to place ethnic disparity at the forefront of its drama. Speaking on the matter, Gardner stated that “What we’re doing is embracing diversity, and as Stephen R. Covey said, “Diversity is looking at our differences, which makes us stronger.” And that is what I feel is happening here within this production. It’s brought together all of Northern Ireland in a fantastic way, and it’s showing Northern Ireland that the country isn’t white. It’s brown, it’s black, it’s yellow, it’s all colours. And what you’ve got here is an international society now, and this play reflects it, which is great, and it’s fantastic to be in a production that really embraces diversity.”
Despite The Tempest, as well as Shakespeare’s Othello and The Merchant of Venice, constantly drawing attention to its racial or ideological others, Terra Nova has truly reversed this concept through its non-normative casting, and its mission statement of togetherness. While this certainly seems to empower its actors, it also alters character and text in the spirit of positivity, which will no doubt strengthen the audience’s perception of community and custom. The Tempest‘s enigmatic island has become a site for intercultural discovery.
Shows run until April 23, with matinees on Friday, April 22 and Saturday, April 23.
Tickets available here
This is part of the ‘Shakespeare Lives Across Ireland’ programme, which can be downloaded here. More #Shakespeare400 events can be found on the blog using the tag #ShaxIRL400. Follow us on Twitter at @ShakesinIreland