Review: Belfast Tempest

The Belfast Tempest Review, by Scott Russell

April 20th-23rd, 2016, T13, Titanic Quarter, Belfast

Set amongst a series of timeframes, from Renaissance to the Victorian era, the Belfast Tempest attempted to promote a thrust of togetherness through celebratory nostalgia, and racial and gendered difference. While this concept was muddied through an incompatibility between modern social liberality and Shakespeare’s glaringly imperialistic text, the adaptation’s sound, set design and most performances were strong throughout.

As the play’s maritime opening approached, a black-clad Prospero, complete with staff and tome, directed his spirit cum servant, Ariel, towards the building of a steampunk ship; the fairy in turn commanded grimly attired labourers, as they banged tools and fixed together sheets of metal until the nautical shape formed. Queen Alonsa’s entourage then boarded, and were soon shaken by the play’s titular event. Young dancers took on the form of the wind and rain, as purple and blue lighting effects and loud drums galore distorted the ship’s shape with spectacle. None of the original text’s somewhat superfluous dialogue entered the scene, allowing the history of Belfast’s shipbuilding industry, and the power of Ariel’s illusion, to stand in focus.

While Prospero is described as “master of a full poor cell”, and seemingly controls characters with his magical “art”, his interpretation of Ariel – “which art but air” – was enhanced in this adaptation; alliteration linked both his power to enchant and his ethereal form. Ariel (Patrick McBrearty) was in constant motion, galloping energetically across the set, and flittering his fingers in clockwork stirrings at every moment; his flamboyant laughter matched the vigour of his step. Despite Prospero looming over the already-tortured sprite with the threat of further pain, Ariel exuded power regardless. Puppeteering had entered into his array of skills, as he charmed Ferdinand into the form of a human marionette  during Act 1 Scene 2. This, including the aforementioned tempest, rendered Ariel’s command of magic as almost miraculous, and placed doubt upon Prospero’s ever-mentioned “art.”

Contrasting greatly with the gentle “air” of Ariel was the “earth” of Caliban (Gary Crossan). The sprite’s light-coloured ruff and doublet were antithetical to one of a decidedly more grubby palatte for Prospero’s “poisonous slave”. Tattered shoes, greased hair and a rough beard completed his ramshackle appearance, and madness decked his demented portrayal; Caliban would scramble clumsily back and forth along the set’s faux beach. Prospero’s enslavement had truly broken this island native, with his soliloquies being set up as internal ramblings, instead of spiteful curses. Whispering sound effects heightened this trait, penetrating Caliban’s twisted mind and inciting both fear and obstinacy: “His spirits hear me/And yet I needs must curse.”

It is then a shame that this livid dread failed to be given context through the mouthpiece of Prospero (James Doran). Sound issues plagued his portrayal, whether through technical faults or poor acoustics due to the unorthodox location (a Belfast warehouse). While the performance retained the command of Prospero somewhat through his ever-constant presence on stage, as well as through his powerful body language, the true authority of Prospero comes from rhetoric. Even in spite of his textual commands and parental characterisation, The Tempest is a play utterly concerned with word usage: “Silence! one word more/Shall make me chide thee”, and poignant language: ” We are such stuff/As dreams are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.” To have this dialogue spoken at such a low volume was truly disappointing, and an unfortunate disservice to the text.

Other incongruities occurred in the form of the play’s primary message: the promotion of difference in the interest of togetherness. While this is a certainly a laudable ideal, and although The Tempest’s plot ultimately ends with harmony at the forefront, the text is somewhat unsuitable to the altering of racial or gender roles. Placing Ferdinand into slavery while being performed by a black actor produced disconcerting connotations; and substituting Antonio for Antonia (the piece’s villain) conjured up Renaissance images of female evil, as she led the male Sebastian towards murder through sexualised body language. Prospero’s statement of “my false brother/Awaked an evil nature”, strengthened this characterisation. Heightening difference, in this case, marginalised its minority roles even further.

Tempest-6564

Photo credit, Neil Harrison

The play’s stage and setting did much to distract from its dubious intent, as the wide warehouse was put to good use in creating a believable seaside locale. Naturalistic noises were produced by dockside seagulls, and the iron support frames provided a visual marker for Belfast’s industrial heritage. Prospero’s cave was a Giant’s Causeway-like menagerie of books, expertly fitting the character’s erudite persona, and the sand, flora and still pond created a believable space for Caliban’s “best springs”.

Despite an intercultural mission statement proving implausible from the outset, the Belfast Tempest was an enjoyable experience, bringing together sights, sounds and naturalism to an interesting quarter of Belfast. Prospero, while the focal point of the play, was outdone by his two subordinates. Ariel, in particular, shone as a piece of magic amongst the tempest.

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.

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