Prospero strides onto the stage and with a confident thump of his large wooden staff begins the magic that is Meg Roe’s The Tempest. (And what a stage it is – especially for this particular play on a rainy Friday night – open to English Bay at the back, every boat sailing by an unwitting actor helping to set the scene.)
The storm that announces this unforgettable production comes to life at first with rope and string – the rope, in the hands of the swaying cast, forming the hull of the ship; and the onstage string quartet elegantly pumping out an ominous soundtrack evoking a stormy horror. It is a chaotic, gorgeous opening to this soaring production, which is anchored with dazzling music and some remarkable performances. The Tempest calls for great theatrics, and Roe delivers.
A Tempest refresher: The storm which opens the play is conjured by Prospero (Allan Morgan), the rightful duke of Milan, now in exile on a desert island. Prospero was betrayed by his brother Antonio, and cast out to sea with his young daughter Miranda (Lili Beaudoin, funny and smart in this role). Prospero has been stranded on the enchanted island for years, where both the human Caliban and the spirit Ariel are in his servitude. When Antonio’s ship sails by, Prospero, out for revenge, uses his magical powers to create the storm that causes the shipwreck – and provokes the action of the play.
Roe first brought The Tempest to the Bard stage in 2008, and it was widely acclaimed (I didn’t see it, but the reviews were excellent). This production is billed as “re-imagined.” Writes Roe in her director’s notes: “I have stumbled upon an opportunity for re-creation.”
Back from 2008 is Jennifer Lines, reprising her Jessie Award-winning portrayal of Ariel. Lines is a winking, ethereal conehead of a sprite – at once powerful and needy, sturdy and airy – and she is very much the heart of this play. The other sprites of the island – played by Sereana Malani, Adele Noronha and Claire Hesselgrave – move about with such grace and assurance, they are a wonder.
Roe has also reprised a brilliant gender switch: Shakespeare’s shipwrecked jester Trinculo and drunken butler pal Stephano become the show-stealing Trincula (Luisa Jojic) and Stephana (Naomi Wright), two ladies of the court of Naples. Jojic and Wright are outrageously good, huge audience-pleasers with their laugh-out-loud physicality and bang-on timing. Their drawn-out postshipwreck reunion, in particular, is the funniest bit I have ever seen on the Bard stage.
Stephana takes up with Caliban, which is also highly entertaining (and mildly vulgar – Shakespeare would approve) – with some interesting business under a blanket, and a fair bit of racy shoe licking. Todd Thomson is a terrific Caliban – projecting an intensity that burns with fear, anger and betrayal – and humanity.
Surrounded by all this brilliance, Morgan’s Prospero was far too understated to cut through. Perhaps he was going for subtlety, but it fell flat; even Prospero’s great final soliloquy – which should be a highly charged event as he throws off the shackles of his rancour – failed to move. It was a huge deficit as astonishing performances, Alessandro Juliani’s spectacular sound design and music, and, in the second half, a couple of blow-the-budget fantastical scenes animated by Christine Reimer’s costumes and Pam Johnson’s set design, swirled around him.
And yet I left the theatre thoroughly satisfied. Is it possible to have a great Tempest without a great Prospero? Before Friday night, I would have said no. Roe, who has become one of Vancouver’s great theatre wizards, manages to pull it off.
The Tempest runs until September 18.