Performance Review: The Tempest

Shakespeare, but not as you know it!

Shakespeare’s The Tempest performed on a 101-year-old tall ship sailing in Sydney Harbour? A little on the nose, was my first thought. And – combined with other bells and whistles such as strategically sailing past the photo-op-worthy Opera house at sunset, plus a three-course meal served on deck – the first question upon reading the description of Come You Spirits’ latest production was impulsively: how much gravy does a production need, and what does that much dressing say about the quality of the meat?

The best thing about being a sceptic is that being proven wrong is usually a good thing. It quickly became clear that these elements, which on the surface appeared to be optional, were key in a quirky performance that was less theatrical, more experiential.

In The Tempest, Prospero, a sorcerer and the rightful duke of Milan, lives with his daughter Miranda in exile on an island where he has enslaved two spirits, Ariel and Caliban, as servants. It is this magical scenario that lends this play in particular to a wide range of interpretations, as the force of ‘magic’ serves as metaphor for whatever flavour of control or dominance one wishes to explore, be it gender, racial or any such exertion of power over others.

Traditional readings of the text seek to explore antagonism; however, this production conversely explored cohesion instead. Conflicts between the characters were neutralised by amalgamating some characters so that a play that typically requires at least seven performers could be staged with only four. Here, Miranda was amalgamated with Ariel (Sontaan Hopson), the fairy nymph who serves Prospero (Charles Mayer) in the hopes of one day earning her freedom.

The master/slave relationship that characterised Prospero and Ariel’s relationship was reframed as a father/daughter relationship, thus some of the tensions of power and control were nurtured by familial love. And by entirely doing away with the character of Antonio (Prospero’s brother and the usurping duke of Milan) the central antagonist was no longer present at all. Thus the removal of the object of Prospero’s lust for revenge made for a gentler and more fatherly Prospero than often is the case. 

By removing these antagonisms, the groundwork was laid for a more congenial production than traditionally staged. There was greater kinship between the characters, as they appeared to work more together against the environment (which was a character on its own, taking the place of antagonist). And there was greater connection with the audience as we became integrated into this family.

The dynamics of the troupe members came into play strongly in this respect. They clearly had a familial bond but, furthermore, were working their own brand of magic into the performance. Co-founder Jo Bloom and performer Sontaan Hopson are professional energy healing light workers and, together with composer Brandon Read, incorporated their practice into the sound and music, which resonated at specific frequencies to match each chakra. Having little understanding of such a practice was no barrier –  the troupe had done the work for us, so all we needed to do was show up.

Read: Exhibition: Heat, Redcliffe Art Gallery

On the surface, it may appear that this was not a production for everyone – for those craving a more challenging intellectual exploration of the story, or classicists who wish to remain true to text. Undeniably, in the simplification of it, something was lost. However, much was gained. It was nourishment for the eyes, ears, nose and tongue, and offered a weight off the heart and kinship with your fellow human beings, all things which could benefit anyone.

The Tempest
A Come You Spirits production
Writer: William Shakespeare
Composer: Brandon Read
Choreographer: Steven Ljubović
Actors: Jo Bloom, Charles Mayer, Sontaan Hopson, Alec Ebert and Ciarán O’Riordan

The Tempest was performed on the Southern Swan Tall Ship sailing Sydney harbour at sunset on 3, 4, 10, 11 January 2023.

Ann is a guild award-winning film editor and writer: