Countdown to ‘The Tempest'

2008-10-02 08:05

If you have followed theatre in KwaZulu-Natal over the years, you'll find a familiar face at the Hexagon at the moment - Stephen Gurney. The countdown to Murray McGibbon's The Tempest with its cast of students from the University of Indiana (where McGibbon teaches) and the University of KwaZulu-Natal's Pietermaritzburg campus is moving fast, with the play opening next Wednesday (August 1). Gurney is taking the pivotal role of Prospero.

When I arrive, the Hexagon is being re-configured in the round, and the cast, working in the movement studio, are about to break for lunch. That's where I find Gurney.

He was based at the Playhouse Loft for eight years during a 12-year period from the late eighties, working as an actor, director and company manager and appearing in many memorable productions. It was there that he first worked with McGibbon. Gurney has been living and working in Britain for some years, his home being a narrow boat based in Uxbridge in South West London. But eight months ago, he and his wife returned to South Africa to be close to her elderly parents and so, when McGibbon's plans for his Tempest came together, it offered the old Playhouse friends an opportunity to work together gain.

It also gives Gurney his first chance to play Prospero, one of Shakespeare's great roles, but also a difficult one. “It's quite unlike other Shakespeare parts,” he says. “In other plays, characters are revealed in their lines but in The Tempest, the actor has to make his own decisions. Prospero comes straight out of me.

“It's a wonderful part, because his journey is internal. Most of the time, he is in control of the other characters, and he has a ball - it's Prospero as Shakespeare. But when it comes to the real catharsis and message, it is Shakespeare's philosophy. It has to do with forgiveness and the significance of forgiveness. So in South Africa, it means an enormous amount. I am convinced it is about the forgiveness of oneself.”

Gurney talks about how the character comes to a point where the ego is sacrificed - leaving only simple humanity. Prospero has to move from where he is manipulating his whole world to a place where he gives up his magic and, finally, in the Epilogue, to where even his identity is forsaken and it is only the actor who is left on the stage.

The experience gap

Prospero towers over the play, whether you see him as manipulator, magician, Shakespeare himself or a colonial master. And this offers a way around what can be a problem when students and experienced professionals are on stage together - the experience gap is very obvious. “Of course it can be an issue,” says Gurney. “But The Tempest is so dominated by Prospero that you can get away with it. When he is offstage, all the others are on a level.” So if it looks a little like Prospero versus the rest, that could be an advantage.

Gurney enjoys working with the young cast - he has plenty of experience with actors just setting out on their careers, going back to his time at The Loft. He knows the gulf that yawns between experience and inexperience, and he knows how to handle it carefully.

He is in charge of the daily vocal warm-ups and voice class with the students. Voices and language are an issue in the production - the cast combines English-speaking South Africans, South Africans whose first language is an African one and Americans. “And there's a fascinating new voice that has emerged while I've been away,” says Gurney. “It's a new, young black voice that is a hybrid.” By opening night they all have to sound as though they belong in the same play.

Language is daunting

Shakespeare's language is daunting for young actors and pronunciation is crucial if the audience are to make sense of what is happening. To illustrate this, Gurney talks about the word “hair”, pronounced differently in all the accents. “We have to move them all towards the English “received pronunciation” for a word like that. I suppose that could run the risk of seeming critical of a certain voice, but it isn't. We have to find a standard for everyone.”

But on the other hand, Gurney admits that a young, black South African saying “hair” in a neutral voice will immediately place him in a certain social and class context. Will the audience think he is setting himself in England? After all, McGibbon's concept of the play places it on a mythical island off the KZN coast at the present time. Then there are American voices - will they suggest the influence of the United States on the world? The audience will be offered all kinds of ideas.

At the beginning of the project, Professor Jonathan Michaelsen from the University of Indiana spent two weeks giving voice classes and working on the basics of approaching the text for those not familiar with Shakespeare. No wonder the rehearsal process has lasted for six weeks. There is a lot to work out here. But on the plus side, says Gurney, is the way the students from the two universities are getting on with each other and forming close bonds. And, for Gurney, there is the enjoyment of the whole creative process - like McGibbon, he says that the main thing is the process rather than the end result.

The rehearsal time is unheard of in professional theatre and Gurney admits he is enjoying it - for only one reason. It's Shakespeare. “If not, it would be deadly,” he says. “I could do Shakespeare 50 times a day and it would never be boring.”

The Tempest is a philosophical rather than an action-packed play: “No shoot-em-up, no skop, skiet en donner, no explanation of how a tragic hero comes to his end.” Holding the audience's attention will be a challenge - but if it all comes together, Pietermaritzburg audiences will be treated to an exciting version of Shakespeare's great farewell to the stage. And they will be part of the project - as Shakespeare/Prospero says in the great


“Gentle breath of yours my sails

Must fill, or else my project fails,

Which was to please.”

*The Tempest runs at the Hexagon from August 1 to 5, with performances at 7.30 pm from Wednesday to Saturday and at 2.30 pm on Sunday. Tickets are R40 (R30 concessions) and booking is at the theatre at or 033 260 5537.

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