A thought-provoking performance

2007-02-01 00:00

THERE has been a lot of anticipation around this production of Shakespeare's The Tempest - director Murray McGibbon has been rehearsing his cast of students from the universities of Indiana and KwaZulu-Natal for the past six weeks. Finally on Wednesday evening, we had a chance to see the end result of the lengthy process which has been backed financially by the Lilly Endowment organisation in the United States.

As the character should, Stephen Gurney's Prospero towers over the action in a subtle, nuanced performance, manipulating the human and other inhabitants of his mythical island. McGibbon has set this off the KwaZulu-Natal coast, which made references to the Mediterranean a bit taxing to the audience's geographical sense, but generally the African/otherworldly setting is well achieved. The vanishing banquet is properly dreamlike and the necessary strangeness is always there. Using the theatre in the round with a bare stage and minimal props increases the sense of mystery.

The only scene where I felt things were not quite working was at the beginning with the storm itself. There was chaos and danger certainly, it was difficult to hear words in the general mayhem and darkness, and a newcomer to the play could have been forgiven for wondering what on Earth was going on.

The issue of words is a big one, particularly in Shakespeare, and it must be said that audibility is a problem with several characters - and is thrown into relief by Gurney's perfect diction. Working in the round does present more problems here, but it is a matter of concern that young actors seem - with some notable exceptions - unable to project their voices, even after six weeks of rehearsal. It is not a problem of accent, it is one of making the voice carry.

To play up the African setting, we lost the English words of Ariel's songs - a pity as they are some of Shakespeare's most beautiful poetry and add to the mood. However, cuts to the text are generally sympathetic.

I don't want to carp; there is a lot to like in this Tempest. Mlondolozi Zondi's Ariel is a hugely engaging sprite; Carmund White's Caliban shows menace and makes clear the problematic nature of his enslavement; Jon Michael Wargo creates a thoroughly nasty Antonio and Aveshree Maistry and Reneldon Moodley's Trinculo and Stephano provide excellent, drunken light relief.

Looking through The Witness file on McGibbon when I interviewed him at the beginning of rehearsals, I found a photograph of a very young man in magician's gear, pulling a rabbit out of a hat. I did wonder whether he was going to be able do it again, taking very disparate elements and producing something coherent and whole. And in general, he does. All along, he has said that this production is about the process more than the finished result, but what has come out of the Hexagon's hat is thought-provoking and well worth an evening out for anyone with an interest in theatre and its workings. It is definitely not just a rabbit.

• The Tempest runs at the Hexagon Theatre until Sunday. Shows: 7.30 pm today and tomorrow; 2.30 pm on Sunday. Tickets: R40 (R30 concessions). Booking at 033 260 5537 or hexagon@ukzn.ac.za

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