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SPIRIT CAPTURED IN STEAMPUNK STYLE

Print Version

Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival 2013
THE TEMPEST
by William Shakespeare
directed by Katie Hansen
presented by Slip of the Tongue

at Coxhead Flat, Hamilton
From 18 Feb 2013 to 24 Feb 2013
[2 hrs]

Reviewed by Mark Houlahan, 24 Feb 2013


There is a special moment towards the end of the dawn performance of The Tempest. “To the elements be free,” says Prospero to the three-person Ariel. They skip in a spiral around each other, and disappear into the grove of trees. This time you really believe Ariel (Ariels here) will be freed.

It's about 6.30am, and the grey light is filling the western sky. To the left, you can just see the swirling, ever moving Waikato River. At every bend a Taniwha, say the Tainui. In this context you could well believe the play was set on an isle full of noises, with strange creatures and even stranger humans.

I have seen dawn Shakespeares elsewhere: a terrific, combustible Henry V directed by Sam Truebridge set astride the Malone gates in Stratford, for example. So far as I know, only in Hamilton has an annual dawn performance attracted such a loyal following: around 300 turned out at 4am today. You can tell the regulars by the scale of their preparations. You need rugs, blankets, hot coffee and something to nibble on. Even in the drought, it gets a little chill by the river just before dawn. Some snuggle in sleeping bags, and come in their pajamas.

The Tempest is a perfect early morning play. Its action climaxes at 6 in the evening, so 6 in the morning is a lovely time to end. The language is full of things becoming clearer:
   …as the morning steals upon the night
   Melting the darkness, so their rising senses
   Begin to chase the ignorant fumes that mantle
   Their clearer reason.

The performance captures perfectly the spirit of a play so much taken up with casting the right spells, and then casting off. In this version, Prospero's staff is a large spear-like piece of driftwood. When Prospero offers to break his staff, he casts it aside, and clearly resolves to only use his human powers in his next life.

Yet the production is not sentimental. The power exerted over children, servants, shipwrecked royalty is palpable and severe. In the role of Prospero Alec Forbes's formidable articulation and freedom on stage is terrific to watch. Trinculo and Stephano are a fantastic drunken pair. They show clearly how desperate Caliban is. The trio also show the real disease of the magical island: everyone who lands on it seeks to own it and will stop at nothing – not even murder – to get their way. 

The steampunk themed costumes are inspired, for so much of steampunk turns the world of Victoria's Empire upside down. The battered top hats, the buckled vests, the large and ludicrous weapons all bring the comedy and disease of power to life. The only thing missing is that the wafting dance of goddesses in Act 4 should surely have been a neo-gothic stomp of automatons.

There is an argument for leaving Shakespeare alone, and writing our own scripts. But when show is as lively as this, and the audience as responsive, you feel there is life yet in Shakespeare's book. 
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See also reviews by:
 Gail Pittaway