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  • Flora Gosling

Review: The Tempest (Bard in the Botanics)

Updated: Jul 29, 2023

Prospero is Reimagined in Bard in the Botanics’ Staggering Final Performance of the Summer

Back in October, Nicole Cooper starred in an all-female production of The Tempest at the Tron Theatre. Her Prospero was a cruel tyrant at the peak of his power, one who watched over the proceedings on the island like a malevolent god. In Bard in the Botanics’ latest production, Cooper is in the directing seat, and this Prospero could not be any more different. Alan Steele plays Prospero in a radical adaptation in which the sorcerer, loving father, and rightful duke of Milan is left utterly powerless.

Prospero is a retired CEO who lost his “empire” to a hostile takeover some time ago. His days are now spent in the care of his nurse (Jennifer Dick), receiving visits from his loving but worried daughter Miranda (Lynsey-Anne Moffat) and her fiancé Ferdinand (Adam Donaldson), and experiencing hallucinations as his mind and his memory crumble. The structure of the play is non-linear and reflects how Prospero’s memories, his fantasies, and his reality have become irrevocably tangled. Although this may sound like a sequel, the language consists almost entirely of lines from the original play, repurposed and swapped between characters. The narrative is almost a new story, but the language, the themes, and most important the characters are still recognisably The Tempest.

Cooper’s ambition with this adaptation extends from the writing to the dramaturgy to the performances, and it pays off in every respect. She and Steele have taken Prospero and turned his sorcery and influence into something entirely imaginary. A familiar audience will be achingly aware of the disparity between his imagination and his reality. It is not just the idea of being powerful that is presented to the audience: it is a power that we have seen with our own eyes in other productions.

The strength of Steele’s performance means that Prospero, vulnerable though he is, is never just an object of pity. You can see the frustration, confusion and even fury as he tries to communicate what he is experiencing. There is a visible difference between how Steele performs when he is alone, where we see Prospero as he sees himself, versus when he is in the company of Miranda and Ferdinand, where we see Prospero as others see him. The cruelty that he wants to inflict and the kindness he wants to extend are still there, but they are suppressed under his frailty. It is a brilliantly layered performance that makes the concept of this adaptation work like a dream.

Photo Credit: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Dick’s performance has a similar duality to Steele’s, as she plays both a nurse and Ariel. As the nurse, she displays a subtle, learned patience. As Ariel, she becomes wide-eyed and two-dimensional, almost like something you would see in a school production. The contrast between the two shows how unrealised and superficial Prospero’s visions are. It is an intelligent performance that communicates not only when the scene has switched from reality into fantasy, but also what that fantasy looks like.

Back in “the real world”, Moffat’s Miranda has come a long way from the curious teenager of the original play. You can see through her performance how the awe Miranda used to have for her father has slowly melted away, leaving her caught in a vicious cycle of shame and pity directed at both her father and herself. It extends Miranda’s narrative and complicates it in unexpected and upsetting ways. Although Donaldson’s role as Ferdinand is smaller, there is still a faultless sensitivity and light touch to his performance. Both he and Moffat also play second roles as Caliban and Antonio, as their storylines of usurping Prospero are bound together.

The dual role of each actor is just one of the ways that Cooper cleverly uses theatrical devices to her advantage. Having actors play multiple roles is very common in order to get the most out of a small cast. But here, it is woven into the fabric of the story to reflect Prospero’s mental instability. Similarly, the use of snippets of modern English in the crevices of the performance is profoundly impactful. Like how some modern productions of Shakespearean comedies use it to deliver punchlines, here Cooper uses it to nail home the tragedy of the situation, for example after Prospero is sent into a rage Ferdinand clutches him and tells him calmly and unpoetically to relax. It punctuates the lyricism of Shakespearean “madness” and brings it back to the reality of mental instability.

To put it simply, this is a production of The Tempest unlike any other. It enriches and expands well-established characters, but also uses them to tell a new story. Narratives of dementia often suffer from not being able to communicate the loss of self that is associated with the condition: audiences are meeting these characters for the first time and have no understanding of the person they used to be. But this is a character audiences know well, and never expected to see in such a fragile and uncontrollable state. With this adaptation, Cooper has brought a depth of understanding and empathy to dementia and mental health deterioration that is four hundred years in the making. Five stars.

Whispers from the Crowd: "It was really powerful, and very emotional." "Interestingly I would have said the same thing, powerful." " The actor playing Ferdinand was really strong, he usually plays quite loud and big characters, so it was nice to see that softness."

The Tempest will run at Bard in the Botanics until July 30


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