Tricksy Spirits and Odd Lads
‘It’s also been a lifelong ambition of mine to be on stage with John Kani. So this feels like all my dreams coming true.’
We were at the Grand Theatre, Leeds, to see Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with Anthony Sher as Prospero and John Kani as Caliban, directed by Janice Honeyman in a co-production by Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
From the moment the curtain was raised we knew we were in for something special. A feast of colour and movement and music explodes onto the audience; a thirty-foot serpent parades, perhaps flies over the stage while individual spirits swirl and sing and leap and intermingle with the elements as Prospero’s storm whistles around the trees and the caves of the island, and out at sea, his enemies are detached from their vessel and floated ashore, separated, and at the wizard’s mercy.
Anthony Sher’s semi-native Prospero is dispossessed, exiled on this tumultuous island far from home. He is scheming, simmering with rage at his fate, dressed in skins and perhaps not as warm and gentle as he could be with his fifteen-year-old daughter. He has drawn his enemies to this island, where he wields all the power and where he can do with with them as he will. Prospero wants revenge. This time around he will be the victor.
Tinarie Van Wyk Loots is an original Miranda, also dressed in skins with unruly hair and dirt on her face and legs. She has long nails and scratches herself and is totally unselfconscious. She has, of course, only seen two men in her life, one her father and the other a slave, though never a monster, Caliban, played magnificently by John Kani.
Atandwa Kani plays the spirit, Ariel, beautiful, smouldering with self-love and itching for his freedom. He is tall and elegant, apt to swing his hips rapidly from side to side, and he moves around the stage like a dancer. He and his fellow spirits wear body-paint and feathers and hair and smear themselves with clay. The stage vibrates with colour.
Anthony Sher’s Prospero is ultimately noble and tender, though he has to reach deep inside himself to come through his rage for revenge.
The production takes the play as a metaphor for colonialism and to this end the island, or Africa itself becomes a magical land, almost a character in its own right. Good use is made of enormous puppets, masks and stilted images, sparkling with colour, and behind it all the rhythms of Africa are ever present through the musicians inhabiting the interior of the stage.
‘This island’s mine,” howls Caliban, an enraged black man. Antony Sher’s white Prospero hangs on to his power, but to do so he has to exert every ounce of his strength.
There were no free seats at Leeds Grand and I expect the situation will be similar when the tour moves on to Bath, Nottingham and Sheffield. Don’t miss it.