Reviews: The Tempest, Dundee Rep & The Chairs, Traverse, Edinburgh

Theatre

 

The Tempest

Dundee Rep

Until June 23

 

The Chairs

Seen at Traverse, Edinburgh;

playing Tron, Glasgow

Wednesday to Saturday

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

 

Not since the year 2000 – when Malachi Bogdanov and the, mercifully, now defunct English Shakespeare Company relocated Romeo And Juliet to outer space (with the Montagues as aliens and the Capulets as humans) – have I seen a Shakespeare production so misconceived as Dundee Rep’s dog’s dinner of a Tempest.

Shakespeare’s final play – in which the blue-blooded Milanese sorcerer Prospero whips up a storm, creating chaos, then order on his Mediterranean island – is certainly open to numerous interpretations, ranging from autobiography (Shakespeare as Prospero) to imperialism (the “monster” Caliban as symbol of a colonised people). One struggles in vain, however, to make any sense of the great rubbish dump (all stuffed garbage bags and abandoned TV sets) which director Jemima Levick and designer Ti Green have made of Prospero’s island. An ecological interpretation might suggest itself if the play supported it in any way, but, save the beauty and magic of the island (which the design traduces), it does not.

As is so often the case with poorly conceived presentations of classic plays, one bad decision leads to another. Irene MacDougall’s female Prospero is absolutely fine (even if she is referred to both as a woman and a “Duke”), but a female Caliban?! Although much of the ill-will Prospero bears towards the enslaved islander comes from the latter’s sexual designs on Miranda (Prospero’s daughter), Ann Louise Ross’s Caliban (who is made up to look like a human being whose face has been badly disfigured in a car crash) is never directed towards the cross-generational, sado-lesbian sub-plot her casting implies.

The production boasts lovely music by Jon Beales and some fine performances, not least from Kirsty MacKay (Miranda) and Keith Fleming (no-holds-barred as the inebriated servant, Stephano). However, the presentation’s central concept is so distracting and so overwhelmingly pointless that even its stronger elements are in danger of being submerged in the unintentionally appropriate detritus of Green’s ugly, maximalist set.

If the Rep is staging a mismatch of play and production, Blue Raincoat Theatre of Sligo present a production of Eugene Ionesco’s darkly satirical piece The Chairs which is so faithful that one might think that it had been directed, not by the excellent Niall Henry, but by the Romanian master himself. Ionesco sits, intriguingly, between the abstract existentialism of Samuel Beckett and the vicious, politicised surrealism of Alfred Jarry. The Chairs is a fine example of his oeuvre.

In the play, an elderly couple (known only as Old Man and Old Woman) assemble ever more chairs for a non-existent audience who will hear an invited orator speak on the Old Man’s world-changing intellectual discoveries. As they do so, the woman constantly reassures her husband that, such are his talents, he could, with more ambition, have been “top general”, rather than merely “general factotum” (a servant). When the couple throw confetti in celebration of the arrival of the palpably absent emperor, audience members of a republican bent might see a timely satire on Britain’s recent jubilee celebrations.

Performed (by John Carty, Sandra O’Malley and, at the end, Ciaran McCauley) with a physical skill and vocal precision which so often characterise Irish actors, and designed with a grey, dusty exactitude by Jamie Vartan, it is hard to imagine a more impressive production of this modernist classic.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 10, 2012

© Mark Brown

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