This Rough Magic begins impressively with a storm sequence depicting the plight of anxious passengers on a sinking ship. Not surprising given that Helen Machalias had based her play on a tantalising concept of telling the story of the Siev 221, 2010 Christmas Island boat disaster through the prism of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
What was surprising was that despite the care and attention obviously lavished on this production, the realisation proved to be such a dense, almost unintelligible and ultimately uninspiring experience.
Perhaps a clue lies in the playwrights notes in which she explains that “This Rough Magic has evolved to become a genre-bending Shakespearean adaptation that is both a celebration of Shakespeare and an act of rebellion against the canon. Iranian culture, Farsi language and Persian myth and storytelling traditions are as prominent as the Shakespearean text, offering a countervailing perspective on what we think of as ‘the classics’”.
Add to that the director’s promise that “our production is Shakespeare inflected and likewise our credo to evoke, not illustrate. From That starting point our journey through the play has taken us through Christmas Island, accounts of immigration detention, Persian culture, poetry, politics and more”.
That’s a tall order for five actors to cope with, let alone an audience, even an inquiring one, and particularly for those not especially steeped in The Tempest, Iranian culture, Farsi language and Persian myth.
In this production, George Kanaan plays Prospero. Reza Momenzada is Ariel, Katlin Nihill is Miranda, Andre Le plays Caliban and Lainie Hart plays a Dive Shop Owner, an Immigration Official and joins with the others to represent various named politicians and a chorus of hungry ghosts and refugees.
All work hard, but given the peripatetic nature of the script, and the fusion of Shakespearean declamation, naturalistic and accented languages, many of the lines were hard to absorb and were therefore lost, and none of the cast were able to demonstrate the range of vocal or acting technique necessary to create characters able to engage interest or sympathy.
Imogen Keen has devised a striking scaffold setting, but despite Gerry Corcoran’s clever lighting design, and the evocative sound design by Kyle Sheedy, while affective for the opening scene, it ultimately offered little sense of time or place elsewhere.
While Machalias’ initial concept of riffing on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” to express her concern about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, seemed a seductive concept, it’s hard to escape the thought that the development of her play suffered from “too many cooks”. The contributions of many to its development, including two dramaturgs, two cultural consultants and all the cast, are acknowledged in her program notes.
By trying to address so many aspects of a complex problem at once, her prime message has become obscured in a welter of unnecessary and confusing detail. Eliminating the dross and sharpening the focus would not only improve the accessibility of the play, but also increase the likelihood of its message reaching a wider audience.
This Rough Magic
The Street Theatre, 15 Childers Street, Canberra City West
Performance: Saturday 11 November 2023
Season continues to 19 November 2023
Information and Bookings: www.thestreet.org.au
Image: Andre Le, Kaitlin Nihill, George Kanaan and Reza Momenzada in This Rough Magic – photo by Novel Photographic
Review: Bill Stephens OAM