Wednesday, 27 February 2013

A Tempest off Matiu-Somes Island

Queens' Wharf, Wellington. The air smells like salt and is full of the calls of sea-gulls. Waves lick at the grey wood of the jetty. Late afternoon sun turns everything gold. Small groups of people have begun to gather; looking down at their watches, their cellphones. Where we're waiting isn't far from a sculpture of some giant kina - very realistically rendered and set down so that the sea can brush up against them. I'd always been curious about that sculpture but hadn't been sure where it was.

7:25pm and we're ushered aboard the small ferry docked there. It's one of those that bus back and forth over the bay several times a day, relaying commuters between Wellington Central and Eastbourne, shaving a good deal of time off their journey; better than the motorway at least. The sea is calm, the day glorious and still warm as the sun fades; even down here where it's typically coldest in the city. We're a fair distance out over the water before they begin the performance. Actors, previously disguised amongst the audience, enter into character and set about relaying increasingly urgent and hysterical messages. A terrible electrical storm has spiralled down out of the clear sky and besieged the city. Lightning is tearing the coastline apart. Thousands are dead or injured. The lights in the cabin blink out. It's an emergency, we're going to have to find a safe place to dock the ship...there's no way we can get back to the harbour now.

Outside everything is warm and golden and serene, the waves crinkle gently against the sides of the vessel.

We draw alongside Matiu-Somes. As if on cue we pass into the shadow of the island, the sun disappearing behind it's bulk. Suddenly everything is grey and colder; the clash between the world the actors are describing and what we can see outside of the windows isn't so great any more. The actors continue their performance, crying out that some strange power has taken hold of the ferry and is pulling it, inexorably but oh-so-gently, towards the island. We dock and emerge from the vessel and onto the jetty. A strange figure perches above us on one side; a woman, blue-skinned and partially unclad, her features accentuated and rendered slightly inhuman. She extends a hand to us as we pass. She is holding something; a small bag of knitted cloth. She makes little noises as we pass. Nobody lingers. This is Ariel.

An aside: Matiu-Somes is a small island in Wellington harbour. In the past it has served as a quarantine colony (originally for people: settlers, later for animals). There are many strange stories about the place - it has seen a lot of death and suffering (people who succumbed to fevers and illness little more than a stone's throw from the land they'd been promised). As with all such things, it is rumoured to be haunted. Now it serves as a protected sanctuary for some of New Zealand's remarkable Native flora and fauna. It is a very beautiful place and day trips are popular among tourists and locals alike, although there are very strict controls and anyone coming to the island must be checked thoroughly (bags are inspected to ensure that they don't contain mice - it has happened before - and shoes are inspected for soil and seeds, even some species of ant are a threat to this perfectly self-contained system, so vigilance is essential). They do their best to incorporate this into the performance and while we shuffle about inside the closed hut, examining our footwear, one of the doors snaps open and Ariel pounces; stealing off with Stephano. A second later she snatches Trinculo as well. We are left now with only the Boatswain and Ferdinand. They reason that we should form a search party and make our way inland in the hopes of finding some kind of shelter from this terrible (still alleged) storm.

We make our way up the steep hill track while New Zealand Native bush curls thickly overhead, eating what little is left of the day's light. Ariel watches silently as we pass and strange music issues from somewhere.

The play begins inside one of the island's compounds. It is all narrow walkways, weird industrial-looking ovens and cell-like chambers. Animals were kept here. We are seated in a row before a series of low-fenced pens. The gates swing out just before our feet. Prospero emerges: gloriously preening and prone to pontification. He rages at being driven from his deanship at Victoria University and sent into exile (there were allegations of black magic, you see, and not entirely unfounded). Here he bides his time - with only his daughter Miranda and two phantoms of the island for company - plotting a chance to revenge himself against the brother that assisted in his exile. Now, with the arrival of these strangers to the island, he has his chance.

This is Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' you see, but it has been reworked, edited, spliced, chopped and transformed into something wholly fresh and contemporary. Much of the Bard's glorious language is retained but now it is shot through with an abundance of modern vernacular and interjections. I certainly don't remember quite so many F-bombs in the original text. Most of the sub-plots and excess characters have been excised and the narrative is now made entirely of the those that, to be honest, are the only ones anyone really cares about...I mean, surely. It is also profoundly funny.

This has pissed off a number of ever-so-serious critics who have deemed 'A Tempest off Matiu-Somes Island' (note the very specific avoidance of the definite article) improper use of Shakespeare's genius.
Now, I'll level with you. I'm not a colossal fan of Shakespeare's work and I'm no purist. I'm not going to say anything pointlessly incendiary like asserting that he is overrated - 'cos he bloody isn't; the dude's work forever re-shaped the English language and his plays still speak to deep human truths even today, centuries after their conception. But Shakespeare didn't just write for royalty and intellectuals (though he definitely wrote for the former, or more specifically, for their commissions), he wrote for the people. His works are shot through with bawdy humour, cheap gags, gleeful bloodshed and sexual innuendo. I think he'd welcome all the liberal interpretations of his works. His plays are not dry, dusty exhibits in museums; unchanging and unchanged. To assert that they must be treated with unwavering reverence is absurd. Shakespeare was a practical man and his plays were living, breathing things as much shaped by the performances and the environments in which they were performed as anything else. So, let me just say that I love what this collective have done with 'The Tempest'. I think it kicks ass. This is a no-holds-Bard (with apologies to Troma head-honcho Lloyd Kaufman for nicking his pun).

Anyway, end rant.
The performance takes place in two locations: the first inside the enclosed industrial compound, the other in one of the areas of said compound that open out to the night sky. Lamps are hung from creaking poles of woven wood and the crowd presses closer to the action. The latter area is far colder than the former and I was feeling some pity for the actors portraying Caliban and Ariel, both of whom are wearing little more than skilfully-applied body paint. Both sets are beautifully arranged and cleverly utilised.

And now, the performances:
As Ariel Erin Howell is remarkable - simultaneously naive, sensuous and predatory; she communicates the character superbly through her physicality, imbuing a strong sense of the other in this spirit of the isle. Matt Clayton is equally superb as Caliban, hunched and grotesque; a brute definitely, but also a victim, hobbled with resentment and still bearing the raw wounds of Prospero's betrayal and trickery. Clayton lends Caliban a tragic, and ultimately redemptive, quality. As Prospero, Scott Ransom, possesses endless charisma, dominating every scene he features in. He is just really, damn cool. The final scene between both he and Caliban is startlingly intense. Wiremu Tuhiwai as Trinculo and Giles McNeill as Stephano are an utterly hilarious (and oft-intoxicated) double act. Their scenes contain the most anachronistic dialogue and are all the better for it as they gleefully undercut the Bard's poetry to endlessly entertaining effect. Jordan Rivers (Ferdinand) is indefatigable and delightfully stumbling, a charming but slightly hopeless young lover, his hipster attire also works brilliantly. Claire O'Loughlin (Miranda) renders her slightly ditzy and prone-to-hysterical-exuberance character extremely well and it's a superb performance, although it does mean she's the only character that gets a little tiresome. Mike Ness (the Boatswain and our guide throughout the entire evening) is delightful and convivial company.
And that's literally the entire cast, right there.
I did mention that this was a very sharply edited rendering of the play, which to be honest, is exactly how I like my Shakespeare served.

We make our way down the hill in darkness after the performance; some of us carrying lanterns, others torches; to ensure that we didn't step on anything Native and potentially endangered. The lights of Wellington harbour make a halo around the isle and the sea is black when we cross back over. The mythical storm has cleared now and we are safe to return.

It was a wonderful show and a fantastic experience. The team behind it all hope to run it as a yearly event from now on and the fact that this season had to be extended twice due to unprecedented ticket sales suggests they might be able to do so.

If you can, I recommend you risk the storm itself to see it.

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