Caliban has been performed in many ways onstage: a woman, punk rocker, Rastafarian, Millwall fan, and a practically naked predator carrying a large phallic bone that offended one member of staff so much that it caused them to resign. When Miranda sets her eyes on Ferdinand, the third man she has ever seen, she instantly falls in love with him. Prospero protests, “this is a Caliban”, a similarity that is obvious throughout the story, but has yet to be fully realised onstage. Until now.
Ferdinand and Caliban are both royal suitors and treated in the same way by Prospero. In the Oxford Shakespeare Company’s version of the play Richard Pryal proves he is an outstanding actor playing both Ferdinand and Caliban. He switches, even in front of us, from being an upright, handsome, well-spoken Ferdinand to an ugly, aggressive, ape-like Caliban. It is a brave move by director Mick Gordon that works smoothly and excitingly to bring alive the character’s similarities, since it highlights how Ferdinand, and even we, can be “the Other”.
The story is set on a desert island, where Prospero has been ruling by use of his magic art for twelve years. He uses his powers to create a tempest, which his enemies from his hometown Naples get caught in. What follows are a series of attempts to usurp power, a pursuit for love, and families reunited. Much is made of the magic, comedy, and love, so much so that there is a song and dance with the repeated line “contract of love”. Nick Llloyd Webber (Andrew’s son) creates pretty and playful music, which compliments the production’s preoccupation with all things happy. It feels like more should be made about the plays more important themes like the relationship between art and nature, master and slave, and, of course (because of its Caliban), colonialism.
Some bits feel mismatched. Matthew Fraser Holland is doubled up to play Ariel and Gonzalo. His Ariel is whitened-up, in an outfit like a strait jacket, and has a demeanour like Rik Mayall’s Drop Dead Fred. He carries around a megaphone, occasionally blurting out lines or singing. Additionally, Prospero has Moses robes and a stick alongside a Miranda who wears an 80s Madonna-clad outfit teamed with Doc Martens.
At 90 minutes, with textual cuts, and frequent musical interludes, this is a bite size version of the play. It’s cute, snappy, and just as enchanting as the garden of Wadham College it is set in. The production only really succeeds, however, when it is more daring, as it is with Caliban, and is worth seeing simply for this.
Runs till 19 August, and tours the country including Hampton Court Palace from 21 August till 31 August.
To see or not to see: * * *