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Treading the Sand Masterfully: The Tempest

It’s the Black Swan State Theatre Company’s thirtieth birthday, and they’re celebrating in style with a unique performance of Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest.

My expectations were already high upon entering the auditorium and seeing that the stage had been turned into a giant sand pit. A quick prayer goes out to the cleaning crew at UWA’s Octagon Theatre. If the sand being kicked around wasn’t mess enough, there was a constant stream of it floating down from the roof on one side. The purpose of this was unclear, except perhaps to suggest an hourglass, but aesthetically it worked well, especially when it finally stopped and the last grains hung in the light for a moment, cloaking Prospero as he monologued.

Cast of The Tempest image by Daniel Grant 

The show blurs the lines between the audience and stage in a way that shouldn’t worry even the shyest audience member, unless they’re very precious about their clothing, or have snacks they’re looking forward to eating. Most of the actors were already milling around the theatre when we entered, each convincing an audience member to hand over something they required for the play. Prospero’s magic coat was acquired from a man in the row behind me, who was given a blanket in compensation. The magic book and staff were also borrowed; I hope the lady whose walking stick was being waved around on stage didn’t need to get up to use the loo. Various mints and wrapped chocolates were coaxed from people’s handbags and buried in a box in the sand for Sebastia and Antonia to find and scoff.

More than the borrowing of props, though, some audience members got a speaking role in the play. Prior to the show some people were interviewed on film about what marriage meant to them. The video was shown to Miranda and Ferdinand upon the agreement of their marriage, as ‘spirits’ giving them advice for their future together. There were sentimental suggestions, like not going to bed angry, and trusting that you had a big enough store of love to get through the rough patches. My favourite, though, had to be the woman who compared early relationships vs marriage to stilettos vs slippers: “slippers are for life. Stilettos give you bunions.”

Cast of The Tempest image by Daniel Grant 

In conversation with Magazine 6000 a few weeks ago, Teresa Jakovich, who played the gender-swapped Sebastia, explained that the movement work was where they started in rehearsals, and underpinned the whole show. The result does credit to their hard work and to the Movement Director, Sam Chester, especially in the moments when almost the whole cast moved together to create a swaying ship, or trap poor Ariel in a tree that crept menacingly up his chest. Ariel himself, played mesmerizingly by Pavan Kumar Hari, when not trapped in a tree showed off his dance skills across the sand, and was responsible for most of the music, his gorgeous voice trilling Shakespeare’s lyrics over the sitar and the hauntingly beautiful hang drum.

Cast of The Tempest image by Daniel Grant 

The story of The Tempest is well-known but there is a reason it was popular enough to win the people’s vote for this thirtieth birthday production by Black Swan. There are endless ways to alter the tone and the emotional impact of the show by subtleties in the characters. Prospero, for example, was played more comedically by Humphrey Bower than I’ve seen before, which added an even darker hue to his enslavement and torture of Caliban. Every actor treading the sand played their part masterfully, but special mention goes to those five who played logs being stacked by Ferdinand, a priceless bit of physical comedy and an impressive display of core strength.

Black Swan’s production of The Tempest is showing at UWA’s Octagon theatre until the 11th December.