Julie Taymor’s stage version of The Lion King has a lot to answer for. Its full frontal assault of African theatrical culture and tribal ritual, expressed through music, singing, dance and puppetry, has ingrained itself indelibly upon the collective consciousness, to the extent that any production drawing upon the same stylistic references will echo with unfortunate reverberations.
So it is with Janice Honeyman’s new production of The Tempest, a co-production between the RSC and the Baxter Theatre Centre in Cape Town. Shakespeare’s last surviving play takes place on an unnamed island and has been endlessly transposed to a wide range of locales, and Honeyman’s African setting at least makes more contextual sense than most, even if the plot makes specific references to North Africa, as opposed to this production’s rocky evocation of the Skeleton Coast.
Prospero (Antony Sher), the rightful Duke of Milan, has been installed on the island for sixteen years after being usurped by his brother, the supplantation later supported by Alonso (Jeremy Crutchley), the King of Naples. During his exile, Prospero has established himself as the tyrannical head of his tiny island kingdom, displacing its only inhabitant, Caliban (John Kani) through the application of his self-taught magical powers.
Sher gives a rather functional performance, devoid of his usual ability to generate real emotional electricity, with his sharply-tuned classical voice sounding curiously out of place in this environment. Kani fares somewhat better, exuding the massive dignity whereof he is possessed, but at the expense of Caliban’s monstrosity; for the most part, Prospero simply seems to be brutalising a venerable farmhand, rather than the attempted rapist of his daughter.
Stronger support comes in unexpected places: from Elton Landrew and Wayne van Rooten’s genuinely amusing turns as the drunken Stephano and Trinculo, and from a very sweetly depicted relationship between Tinarie van Wyk Loots and Charlie Keegan as Miranda and Ferdinand: the moment when Miranda expresses her wonderment at the discovery of another human by irresistibly groping Ferdinand’s muscular torso is pricelessly done.
The overall result, though, is a somewhat uneasy marriage, as if Shakespeare had been grafted onto Patti Boulaye’s Sun Dance — an engaging and entertaining production bursting with colour, movement and sound, but in which the delicacy of the poetry is almost entirely lost. But this is, perhaps, to miss the point of the production, which, amongst the rattling gourds and giant chameleon puppets, wears its heart firmly on its sleeve. The vision of Africa it presents may have been diluted somewhat by Disney’s corrupting influence, but it is undeniably impressive to see an African company celebrating the continent’s own indomitable traditions by appropriating Shakespeare in the playwright’s own birthplace.