Timing is everything. When this production was first conceived, John Fletcher's (writing without his usual collaborator Francis Beaumont) long-forgotten exotic swashbuckler was probably thought as just the thing to brighten up a winter evening. But, since October, the story of Western colonialism within Indonesia (complete with an Osama bin Laden look-alike, railing against foreigners) has more sinister overtones that Gregory Doran's production doesn't really deal with.
The princess Quisara has promise to marry the person who can save her brother, imprisoned by a wicked governor. Though she's in love with Portugese soldier, Ruy Dias, his indecisive delays leave the field clear for dashing Armusia to save the day - and win the girl. It doesn't sound too far from a pantomime and, indeed, Paul Bhattacharjee plays the wicked governor in appropriate stage villain mode: he doesn't quite twirl a moustache but he does twang a beard.
The uncertainty with Fletcher's play is whether it's a knockabout adventure story, an Indonesian travelogue or a piece of Christian propaganda. Doran's rather jolly production clearly opts for the former. David Rintoul and Jamie Glove as the blustering Ruy Dias and noble Armusia join in the fun and give barnstorming performances, while there are subtler turns from Antony Byrne as the play's moral guide, Pyniero and from Sasha Behar's cool Quisara.
Niki Turner's design looks a bit lost on the Gielgud stage: it was probably far more effective piece in Stratford's more intimate Swan, where Adrian Lee's gamelan accompaniment would have also have been better accommodated.
To contemporary Jacobean audiences, The Island Princess must have been an impressive piece of exotica - Indonesia would have been as mysterious to them as the moon is to us. The stirring declamations of the virtues of Christianity in the face of horrible torture would have struck chords with the populace; after all, people were still being killed across Europe for belonging to the wrong religion. But these speeches don't fit well with 21st-century audiences, all too uncomfortably aware of the lasting effects of Western influence in some parts of the world.
But Doran clearly doesn't want to deal with the colonial implications of the text. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that avoidance, of course, but there may be a danger in resurrecting old texts without dealing with some of the associated implications. The Island Princess is all good fun and a happy night out, but perhaps some of the greater undercurrents have been dodged.
Note: The following review dates from July 2002 and this production's original run at Stratford.
A splendid Gamelan orchestra creates the tone for this exotic drama set in the Portuguese East Indies. If Shakespeare touched on the problem of colonialism in The Tempest in 1611, John Fletcher confronted it head-on ten years later in The Island Princess. Gregory Doran's subtle and beautiful production explores the clash of cultures and the vexed issues of religious faith and toleration from a sympathetic, post-colonial perspective.
This is no crude melodrama, but a sophisticated tale with few unequivocal heroes or villains; the characters are complex and are changed by their experiences. Even the principal villain, the wicked Governor (Paul Bhattacharjee), whom Jacobean audiences would have regarded as a man of unmitigated evil, has the insight to foresee the threat which the colonial forces pose to his native land.
It's good to see Asian actors taking centre-stage at Stratford. Sasha Behar plays the Indonesian princess Quisara. Stunningly beautiful, she represents the Spice Islands about to be plundered by the Portuguese adventurers. She promises to marry whichever of her five suitors frees her imprisoned brother. But Fletcher soon moves beyond this folk-tale narrative, and when the brother is speedily rescued, the princess is reluctant to keep her bargain and marry the Portuguese adventurer who effected the deed.
Jamie Glover, as Armusia, the virtuous young hero who (eventually) gets the girl, has one of the least complex roles, but carries it off with tremendous bravado and panache. More interesting a character is David Rintoul's Ruy Dias, who begins as a reprobate - sly, braggartly, indolent, proud, cowardly - but is converted to a conventional Jacobean virtue which leads him to acts of colonial violence in support of his Portuguese countrymen.
Some English audiences may consider Michael Matus as the King of Tidore, brother of the Island Princess, a little bland and dull. But I thought his performance one of the triumphs of the evening. Here was a simple man, innocent, gentle, loving, forgiving, who represents a disconcertingly alternative value-system to European notions of honour and kingly dignity.
Adrian Lee's wonderfully evocative music, combined with Wayne Dowdeswell's lighting and Niki Turner's design resplendent in red and gold, create a stunningly beautiful show. The story is easy enough to follow and The Island Princess is perfectly entertaining on a superficial level. But the unfamiliar attitudes and complex themes made me want to read the text and then return to the Swan for a second helping of this fascinating and unusual play.
-by Robert Hole
The Island Princess opened at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon on 2 July 2002 (previews from 26 June) and runs there in repertory until 14 September 2002, and thereafter in Newcastle.