At first glance, The Tempest, Sydney Theatre Company’s final production of the 2022 season, seems like a breather for director Kip Williams. Especially after the formal daring of this year’s Julius Caesar and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, both of which employed his high tech cine-theatre technique, which blurs the lines between theatre and cinema.
By contrast, The Tempest’s staging is deceptively simple, set designer Jacob Nash centring the action around a large rocky outcropping on a rotating stage, while Nick Schlieper’s stormy lighting fills in the rest of the scenery. But it's in the writing that we see some audacious alterations; Williams and dramaturg Shari Sebbens have not only boiled Shakespeare’s original text down to two hours with no scene breaks, they’ve made some dramatic changes to the play’s themes. The character of Caliban (Guy Simon) and his relationship with the sorcerer Prospero (legendary Australian actor Richard Roxburgh) is reframed in light of our modern understanding of colonialism.
...a revered classic invested with fresh meaning by a company at the very top of their game
The broad strokes remain the same, though. After a storm wrecks the ship carrying Alonso (Mandy McElhinney), the King of Naples, Antonio (Jason Chong), the Duke of Milan, and their party on the remote island inhabited by the wizard Prospero and his daughter, Miranda (Claude Scott-Mitchell), the stage is set for several plotlines. Among the threads, romance buds between Miranda and the handsome Ferdinand (Shiv Pelekar), the King’s son; betrayal by the king’s brother, Sebastian (Chantelle Jamieson) and the scheming Antonio; and retribution by Prospero, himself the rightful Duke of Milan, exiled years ago by Alonso and Antonio.
But this production re-envisions Caliban, the island’s original inhabitant, who was enslaved by Prospero and normally portrayed as a monstrous and malformed villain. That take doesn’t fly – not in 2022, and certainly not on an Australian stage. Rather, Caliban is a character with an understandable grievance – Indigenous to the island and oppressed by a European interloper, it’s little wonder that he plots Prospero’s death – with comic relief from pair Stephano (Aaron Tsindos) and Trinculo (Susie Yousseff).
To this end, both Caliban and Prospero are furnished with new dialogue lifted from other Shakespearian works, altering the text and the theme but not the tone. It’s a smart choice, retaining the action of the play but gently recontextualising some of the more age-worn elements for a modern audience.
Williams keeps things relatively light, however, empathising with The Tempest’s comedic elements. To this end, Roxburgh gives us an energetic and wry Prospero rather than the hidebound and vengeful figure we often get, while veteran actor Peter Carroll is wonderful as the capricious air spirit Ariel – long-haired, bare-chested and playful, coming across as a kind of ghostly Iggy Pop. Tsindos goes large as the drunken butler Stephano, and Megan Wilding brings a harried, put-upon energy to loyal courtier Gonzalo.
Sydney Theatre Company have enjoyed a fantastic 2022 season, mounting a superb series of productions after the last couple of years’ difficulties. The Tempest is a perfect punctuation point: a revered classic invested with fresh meaning by a company at the very top of their game.
The Tempest plays at Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay, until December 17, 2022. Get your tickets