Roslyn Packer Theatre, November 19


Art to enchant, indeed. The Tempest is often better read than seen, but not this time. Director Kip Williams (for Sydney Theatre Company) has taken liberties with the text (inserting lines from other Shakespeare plays) that will drive the purists to distraction, while lending greater weight to the issue of Prospero as coloniser and Caliban as dispossessed. Another change, meanwhile, simply helps the extant play work: Richard Roxburgh, amazingly, inhabits a Prospero we like.

Peter Carroll and Richard Roxburgh. Photos: Daniel Boud.

Rather than being school-masterly, short-tempered, overbearing and self-important, Roxburgh infuses warm blood into the character’s cold, analytical, scheming veins. Partly conception and partly performance, it has a monumental impact on the play, because suddenly more comedy springs miraculously to life, where so many productions rely simply on the buffoonery of Stephano (an amusing Aaron Tsinados) and Trinculo (Susie Youssef) for laughs.

Roxburgh’s Prospero can actually delight in a world of wonders – many of his own making, of course. Crucially his exchanges with Ariel are less severe, more playful. It’s an object lesson in the power of tone of voice, and how a given line can sound like it comes from a tyrant or, here, like an indulgent father (in relation to his daughter, Miranda); like an appreciative boss (in relation to Ariel, his obliging magical spirit).

Richard Roxburgh. Photos: Daniel Boud.

Ah, magic. Yes, there’s magic in the air, the set (Jacob Nash), the twangling, sometimes surround-sound music (Stefan Gregory) and some performances. It’s abundant in this Ariel, who, in a casting masterstroke, is played by veteran Peter Carroll, where, conventionally, the spirit is played by one who’s young and often androgynous or female. Carroll wears long, blond hair and sparkly trousers that fuse into his torso as though he’s a merman – and with the waistband intermittently emitting smoke! Just as Roxburgh’s is a warmer Prospero, Carroll’s is not a grudging Ariel, but one who relishes his pranks and powers, spells and music. Through it all the flitting lightness is there, too, and yet when he turns into a giant bird to confront the dull band of Alonso (Mandy McElhinney), Gonzalo (Megan Wilding), Antonio (Jason Chong) and Sebastian (Chantelle Jamieson), he’s as terrifying as any creature from a Max Ernst painting.

Claude Scott-Mitchell needs to unwind more as Miranda. She seems coiled like a spring and is too often overwrought. Shiv Palekar, by contrast, as her lover, Ferdinand, makes the ingenuousness real, without the character becoming wet. When Prospero sees their instantaneous love, he uses one of Shakespeare’s great metaphors to observe that they “have changed eyes”. Later, in a glorious moment atop the rock that bulks in the centre of a large revolve, they kiss amid a sun-shower of glitter.

Peter Carroll. Photos: Daniel Boud.

Finally, let’s return to Caliban (Guy Simon) and the issue that has vexed commentators, theatricals and audiences for centuries. Here it takes more than Simon’s performance to make Caliban as sympathetic as are this Prospero and Ariel: it takes changes to the text. Whether he tried to rape Miranda is smudged, so we now have a character who’s no longer overtly evil; merely vengeful because of his dispossession. To heighten the pathos of this, Williams inserts a speech of Richard’s from Richard II to amplify Caliban’s love of country, and, at the end, rather than Prospero seeming likely to take his “slave” with him to Milan, he gives him back his island. Yes, it’s all heavily contrived to make a point, but as a piece of theatre – as a story – it works. This Tempest is more like a warm bath of reconciliation.

Until December 17.