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Theatre Review: The Tempest @ Stratford Festival, Ontario

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The Tempest is one of the Stratford Festival (Ontario, Canada)’s summer Shakespeare plays, running alongside Coriolanus and Julius Caesar. It is directed by Antoni Cimolino and starring Martha Henry as Prospero in her 44th season for the company.

Whilst The Tempest itself has several core themes - some obviously intentional, others more ambiguous - it is clear that the director of this production sought to foreground parent-child relationships, especially the one shown between Prospero and Miranda. Prospero was cast as female (played by the enigmatic Martha Henry) and the character is textually reconfigured to be so, with “father” replaced with “mother”. And outside of the play, a talk on ‘The Maternal Bond’ will be held in the theatre in September, plainly showing the director’s intent.

This worked well within the production, as the scenes with Ferdinand held more resonance - rather than an overbearing father driving his daughter and her love interest apart, it became a concerned mother who didn’t want her daughter to be spurned when the boy lost interest. Affection between mother and daughter was displayed through physical contact and intimacy, with Prospero reaching out to affectionately rub Miranda’s shoulder or caress her hair during dialogue. Of all the themes that the production worked with, this was the one that I felt to be the most successful.

A lot of modern criticism of The Tempest focuses on a postcolonial reading, discussing the play’s themes of slavery and servitude, as well as overt colonisation. Slavery was unequivocally another theme that the production sought to foreground, with an essay titled ‘Lessons in Liberty’ taking centre-stage in the programme. The element that stood out the most was the physical theatre of the piece, with both Caliban and Ariel mimicking the same movements and gestures, connecting the pair visually. They both recoil from Prospero’s staff, indicating prior violence at her hand, and Caliban constantly stood hunchbacked, with his legs hanging awkwardly behind him.

Whilst the physical trauma of colonialisation worked well in the piece, it was otherwise undeveloped as it took second place behind parenthood. The theatre's opening announcements mentioned its awareness of being built on native lands, leaving an echo of expectation in my mind going into a play as rich in themes as The Tempest. I came out of the theatre mostly satisfied, but a bit disappointed that the arc ended with Prospero kissing Caliban on the head and saying goodbye. It felt as if they should have said more, though I was pleased that they’d said anything at all.

In addition to its thematic resonances, a lot of care had clearly been given to the set design, lighting and music. Prospero began the play atop her “cell”, which is constructed of the roots of a tree that rises above the stage. During particularly magical scenes, these roots lit up to glorious effect, creating an aura of awe and spectacle. And the opening shipwreck featured full mast and crew, careening side to side as lighting and audio were used to generate the feeling of oceaneanic waves crashing over the players. Wind chimes sounded whenever Prospero cast a spell, or commanded Ariel to do her bidding, magnifying her power and control over the elements.

But whilst these effects worked well, other elements were less successful. Some of the actors wore microphones, whilst others did not, leading to a strange dissonance between scenes. The only instance of a microphone adding gravitas was during Act 3, Scene 3, when Ariel intimidates the King and his party as a “harpy” (in this case, a mechanical raven towering over the scene with red, glowing eyes). Otherwise, it just led to confusion and discord. Additionally, the music that was piped in, either from backstage or having been pre-recorded, didn’t fit with the production, in comparison with Ariel’s jaunty tunes that involved live percussion and vocals performed by the sprites.

Overall I very much enjoyed The Tempest, even if my review seems to have brought out the elements I disliked. It felt grand and larger than life, and the acting was stellar. I have so many more notes about what I liked, but it would come to a matter of listing: Ariel's costume taking on elements of the "cloven pine" he was imprisoned in, the diversity of the cast, Martha Henry's portrayal of Prospero's arc and how she discards her staff. There's a lot to enjoy, and it's well worth a watch, despite the parts I've nitpicked. If you happen to be in Canada, I would definitely recommend the Stratford Festival - it felt like a home away from home.

The Tempest will run until October 26th, and tickets can be purchased here.

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