Experimenting with Shakespeare's ‘Tempest'

2008-02-01 00:00

LAST time I saw Murray McGibbon, back in 2005, he was full of plans for an African version of Shakespeare's The Tempest. He talked about bringing some of his students from the University of Indiana, where he teaches, and putting them together with South African actors. He had won a grant for the project from the Eli Lilly Foundation in the United States and also got funding from the University of Indiana and was talking about 2006 as the date.

It's taken an extra year for the plans to become a reality - The Tempest will be staged at the Hexagon at the beginning of August. “It's such a huge project that it has taken a long time. I've been over twice already to conduct auditions,” he says. Finally, with the six Indiana university students arriving last Friday and work starting yesterday along with the 14 students he has chosen from the department of drama studies on the local campus, McGibbon's show is on the road.

The Hexagon Theatre, where we meet, is familiar territory. “I cut my teeth here,” he says, referring to his days as a student in the department. Later, with his own theatre company, Presto, he directed productions in the Hex, including Equus. And, of course, in his days as director of drama at Napac, he brought a number of shows up the road to Pietermaritzburg. One reason for wanting to see his Tempest in the Hexagon is that McGibbon believes that, with the auditorium configured in the round (with the audience all around the stage instead of just in front), it is a world-class space and one that fits his ideas for the play.

“I'm very influenced by Peter Brook - he's my private theatre god,” says McGibbon, referring to the influential British director. “I want to see if we can use his method of taking diverse groups and welding them into something.”

He pauses, saying he doesn't want to sound arrogant but that he feels he is at a time in his working life when he has had a lot of experience in the theatre and done a lot of mainstream directing and now, he wants to play a bit.

But perhaps not too much. The initial press release that went out from the drama department referred to a “provocative new reading” of The Tempest, but McGibbon is firm that this is Shakespeare's text, with a few cuts, mainly for length. What he wants to do, Peter Brook style, is start with a blank canvas and, working with his students - and experienced South African actor Stephen Gurney taking the role of Prospero - see what comes out. He wants everyone to go in without preconceived notions.

“One of the reasons I have chosen The Tempest is that the themes of redemption, forgiveness and saying sorry have a contemporary relevance here,” he says. “South Africa is still going through that.” He is setting the play on a mythical island off the KwaZulu-Natal coast and with costume design by University of KwaZulu-Natal graduate student Mbo Mtshali, the production should have an African feel.

But McGibbon admits that he is still unsure of how things will come out in the end. “I'm frightened of The Tempest,” he says. “It's a problem play and my challenge is to make it clear and understandable to a contemporary audience, while still being faithful to the original intentions.”

As a theatre director based in a university, McGibbon feels strongly that he has a responsibility to “push the envelope” and experiment. “It's bungee-jumping directing, a leap into the unkown,” he says.

It will be a long leap, with more than six weeks for McGibbon and his cast to rehearse, test ideas and bring The Tempest to life. This is an almost unimaginable luxury for a director - McGibbon says that in professional theatre in the U.S., the rehearsal period is two to three weeks, leaving no time for experimentation. Nonetheless, McGibbon knows the size of the challenge he has taken on, weaving a disparate cast who come from very different societies together to create a cohesive whole. “I'm walking a tightrope over shark-infested waters,” he says - and he is not just referring to the setting of the play.

“I suppose it might be a flop,” he says. “But the journey is the thing, rather than the finished product.” And somehow, with a project in which McGibbon has already invested so much time and energy, I get the feeling that this kind of talk is just insurance, a way of reassuring himself before the real work starts. Almost in the same breath he talks of possibly taking the show to Grahamstown next year, or re-staging it in the U.S., taking some of the local actors there to pick up where they leave off here. “I hope it will have legs,” he says.

Local audiences will have their chance to judge for themselves when the curtain goes up on The Tempest - exciting, experimental and with a strong local flavour - on August 1, running until August 5, when there will be a matinée performance.

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