Front Square, Trinity College Dublin
Unlike most of his plays, which establish their locations in title or in prologue, Shakespeare’s last work takes place on an unknown island. Here Prospero, the exiled duke of Milan and a powerful magician, reigns over a land inhabited by spirits, beasts and one poor savage, with his daughter.
Although we could guess its position, somewhere in the Mediterranean, it seems wiser to leave it off any map; partly because its imagination and dreams respect no borders, and partly because its shiver of colonial exploitation raises uncomfortable questions.
This appearance from the venerable touring company Footsbarn marks a coup for the Dublin Shakespeare Festival. Famed for its Shakespearean adaptations, international collaborators and a winningly spry stagecraft, the company have given this adaptation an Indian context, in title, composition and tone, which invites many associations. Some are vividly productive, such as a collaboration with performers and musicians from Kerala in southwest India, which brings texture and vitality to the text.
Some are distracting, such as the strange reversal of seeing an Indian Prospero command an enslaved English Caliban.
We begin with a tempest summoned through violins, zither and percussion, while Prospero’s enchanted shipwreck is rendered in shadow play and his former usurpers are marooned in a variety of masks. The appearance of the “airy spirit” Ariel, played by Gopalakrishnan, infuses the performance with vibrant references to Abhinaya – the art of expression – and although some will worry about the “exoticisation” of Indian dance drama, director Paddy Hayter threads the style so evenly through his production that it becomes more than simple set dressing.
Moreover, the language of the text – here edited to fit a supple two-hour performance – weaves between English, French and Malayalam, where D Reghoothaman’s shamanic Prospero conjures up puppetry and theatrical artifice for the purpose of both magic and exposition, while Ferdinand, the good-natured Italian youth, woos Kani Kusruti’s Miranda in perfect French. Supplying most of the production’s emotion and much of its mirth, Kusruti seems to understand him perfectly.
The production, usually staged in Footsbarn’s tent but here nicely complemented by the russet sunset and chirping birds of summer, is more good-natured than politically provocative. Yet it is still Caliban, the island’s demonised and disposed “savage”, whose story pricks contemporary ears; who was “once mine own king” and now embittered and enslaved would become his usurper’s “foot-licker”.
Spoken in an English accent by Paddy Hayter to an Indian Prospero and a French Stefano, that interplay summons a jangle of complex colonial histories. But you suspect that the Utopian agenda of Footsbarn, which has collaborated across barriers to mint an appealing stagecraft that transcends language, is that we would not hear them.
Runs until June 16th