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It would be easy to run a mile from this production. Four languages – French, Arabic, Italian, German. Surtitles galore. Half the cast played by puppets. Well, don’t be put off. Whatever your nationality, this Tempest is a feast for the eyes and ears – ideal for those coming to Shakespeare for the first time.
Dominique Pitoiset plays Prospero as well as directing and designing – which is fitting, because this Tempest takes place inside the private universe of one man’s imagination, a world in which control, revenge and illusion are taken to weirdly logical extremes. In a sandy set doubling up as walled library, Pitoiset is the self-appointed bastion of normality, a blind ringmaster, dapper with silver hair and long cane. Around him, though, everything is distorted: dwarfism, obesity, clowns, massive
Ariel is startlingly and compellingly played by Tunisian actress Houda Ben Kamla. Dressed as a diminutive aviator in goggles (somewhere between a Teletubby and Saint Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince), she infuses the role with shrewd wit, complicity, tenderness. Andrea Nolfo’s excellent Caliban is swarthy, disquieting, brutish without caricature. Less finely tuned is Sylviane Röösli’s Miranda, a fleshy, unkempt enfant sauvage with sometimes dodgy diction.
Pitoiset plays games with our expectations as the courtiers emerge from shipwrecked packing cases. Since they are the same size as the actors playing Ariel and Caliban, it takes a moment to realise these are not dwarfs but puppets, deftly manipulated by black figures with hypnotic grace. In this masque to the music of Vivaldi, their floppy forms and effete gestures convey the decadent rivalries of the divided courts of Italy. Funny but also sinister. And Prospero’s revenge is visually brutal: the plotters are zipped into hanging clothes bags to dangle sightlessly, evoking images of Christ and the two robbers crucified. In the subplot, Trinculo and Stefano – nicely played as commedia dell’arte clowns – get their comeuppance with Caliban as stuffed exhibits in glass cases.
Pitoiset carries off this mix of genres – dramatic realism, commedia dell’arte, mime and symbols – with conviction and clarity. And he moves us beyond words with Ariel’s liberation to the haunting melody of an Arab song.
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