Terra Nova Take On The Tempest

Artistic director Andrea Montgomery and actor James Doran on modernising the Shakespeare epic in a colossal new Belfast adaptation

'O brave new world that has such people in’t!', marvelled the innocent young bride-to-be Miranda in Act V of The Tempest. Like several others of Shakespeare’s so-called ‘late plays’, its storyline is replete with magic and illusion, breathtaking tableaux and mythical conjuring. It is a play about domination and influence, power struggles in the highest echelons of state – and it is a love story.

In a different but no less magical Shakespearean play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the airy spirit Puck vows that he will '… put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes'. In the space of approximately two hours, Terra Nova, a company dedicated to generating and producing intercultural theatre, will contrive to do precisely that.

Fired by the colour, the theatrical magic and the epic themes of the original, the company’s artistic director Andrea Montgomery has created an unmistakably Belfast-flavoured vision of Miranda’s brave new world, to be staged in the massive industrial chamber of the T13 warehouse on the former wasteland that is now Titanic Quarter.

This daring, spectacular new version will establish global connections, bringing together a professional cast of actors with hundreds of dancers, drummers, singers and performers drawn from Belfast’s ethnic communities in a worldwide celebration of the 400th anniversary of the death of, arguably, the greatest writer in the English language.

Born in India the daughter of a Canadian diplomat, Montgomery was raised in the Far East and Switzerland. Intercultural connections are a way of life to her. Soon after moving to Northern Ireland in 2002 to take up the post of artistic director at the Riverside Theatre in Coleraine, the notion of staging a large scale version of one of her favourite plays began rumbling away in the back of her mind. As the months went by, she started to formulate a concept for a large-scale, localised interpretation for a site specific venue. 

'I loved living up on the north coast,' she says. 'The landscape is so breathtaking and imposing. My first thought was to stage a Northern Ireland Tempest on Portstewart Strand, but I soon realised that that would have been somewhat impractical, to say the least. But the idea would not go away. When I moved to Belfast I discovered Queen’s Island and the amazing industrial history in which it is immersed. Slowly the concept of a Belfast Tempest, rooted in that location, began to crystallise.

'I can’t describe the thrill when I heard that my funding application to Belfast City Council had been successful. To an outsider like myself, it was a real gesture of faith, a way of being told, "Yes, we trust you to deliver this story about our city."'

With unerring faith in and familiarity with her project, Montgomery leads a walk through the rehearsal space. What may look to an outsider like a shabby church hall strewn with mats, benches, chalk markings and plastic sheeting, is, in her boundless imagination, the island landscape of the play.

At its southern tip is a wild and overgrown rocky outcrop, at the other is a dark, book-lined cavern, where the exiled duke Prospero lives with his daughter Miranda and where he practices his rough magic.

'I have envisaged the dramatic structure as a geographic microcosm, a set of boxes within boxes,' explains Montgomery. 'The island represents the island of Ireland, within it is a smaller island representing the six counties of Northern Ireland, within that is the city of Belfast and at its centre is Queen’s Island, where lies the heartbeat of the play.

'When we transfer this into the massive space of T13, with all the theatrical effects, the audience ranged around on three sides of the performance area, the colour and sound and vibrancy introduced by the community groups, it should look amazing. Fingers crossed.'

Among the impressive professional line-up is James Doran, an actor of whom it was once said that he could read aloud the telephone directory and make it sound interesting. Here, his role as the play’s central character and master-of-ceremonies is about as interesting and challenging as they come, not least because, while remaining faithful to Shakespeare’s text, Montgomery has found a way of translating the story into a context which the Northern Ireland public will instantly recognise.

One of the few liberties Montgomery has taken is in substituting Alonso, King of Naples, for Alonsa, Queen of Naples (Nicola Gardener), and the usurping duke Antonio for the treacherous duchess Antonia (Jo Donnelly).

'I took that decision not least because it allows me to give work to talented older women and also to make the point that gender is simply unimportant in the play,' she says. 'It underlines the timelessness of the characters, the way in which they pass between time frames and the effect that can have. The figure of Queen Alonsa moves between the 1900s and 2016. Caliban comes face to face with modern times in an interesting chronological and cultural collision.'

Belfast Tempest pic 2

It is some fourteen years since Doran last appeared in a play by Shakespeare, playing Macduff in Prime Cut’s production of Macbeth (known in the theatre world, for superstitious reasons, as The Scottish Play). He says that, this time around, there was much hard graft to be done before stepping into the rehearsal room.

'You can’t just pick up a Shakespeare play and read it like a book,' he says. 'I remember the first of his plays we did at school was The Merchant of Venice. We were all looking at each other and asking why are we reading this? Then our teacher explained it and discussed it with us and we all fell in love with it. Shakespeare is a long, slow burn.

My first task on The Tempest was to read and re-read it - and in translation. The first few times it it sounded to me like a foreign language, even though I know that at the time it was written it wasn’t like that. It was written for ordinary people and that’s the way they talked. Then after becoming familiar with the story, the next question was how to make it relevant.

'The character of Prospero is complex. I’m still trying to pin him down. In the original play he is the rightful Duke of Milan, who has had his power usurped and been exiled onto a remote island with his daughter. In our version, I’m not basing him on any one particular person but he is an amalgamation of a wealthy aristocrat and a captain of industry in Victorian Belfast. He is one of the bosses - a figure like William Pirrie or Gustav Wolff - who has been pushed out of his power base in a city which, at the time, was one of the world’s great industrial centres.

'The new context makes the play very meaningful for a modern day audience. From the window of the rehearsal room, we can see the yellow cranes of the Harland & Wolff shipyard. It gives you a bit of a shiver when you are speaking these lines, acting a situation that could have played out in that very place. The play is about a struggle between those who possess power and those who are subjected to it.'

Montgomery has found a number of smart ways of bringing the play’s exotic characters into a meaningful context that is at once historic and contemporary. Doran explains, for instance, how the monster Caliban is reborn as a simple native of the island, a pathetic creature whom Prospero attempts to tame, tutor and dominate:

'This is his island. Prospero is the intruder. He clothes him, he teaches him to read, to speak English and he brings him under his power. It is the classic master-servant relationship, just as it existed between the bosses and the workers in the shipyards. But it does not make Caliban any less a person. He acknowledges that Prospero has taught him language, but touchingly he says that he has taught him to curse - that’s what he has heard most from his master.

Befast Tempest pic 6

'As the play unfolds, we start to see Prospero’s magic as being like an addiction. It cuts him off from reality. He has been cast away onto this island and he is bitter and vengeful. He has all this time on his hands to concentrate on how he can take revenge on those who wronged him and get back to where he came from by whatever means. In order to return to his old life and rightful position, he will have to leave the magic behind - and it’s hard for him to kick the habit.

'One of the biggest challenges I’m facing is conveying the subtlety of Prospero’s inner thoughts and feelings on such a huge canvas. On a conventional stage or on camera, in close proximity to the audience, it can be done in small, subtle ways, but here it has to be magnified but without overacting. I’m working on it!'

Montgomery explains that in contextualising the original play, she was '…hyper aware of the way that flags and emblems can have a direct impact. There are practical relationships relating to that in the play, but without overloading the message. For example, there is a conscious choice of costumes which are in three distinct time frames. The servants Ariel and Caliban are in 17th century dress, dating back to Shakespeare’s own. They represent the original occupants of the island. Prosper and Miranda are figures from the 1900s, pre-World War I and Titanic. They represent the power and industrial might of Belfast. Then there are the blow-ins - people like me!- the city’s new arrivals, the arrivistes. They wear modern day dress and look and speak differently.

'In addition to that, the community groups will introduce another layer of vibrancy and vitality, with their colourful dress and cultural references. They will perform an amazing wedding masque, which brings the piece to a joyful finale.

'The Tempest is such a multi-faceted play. The deeper you dig, the more you find. And when you set it in the context of this place, the connections are astonishing. That’s the mark of a truly great play of course - its enduring qualities and its universality.

'It is a play about forgiveness, while acknowledging how difficult it is to forgive. It’s about redemption, while acknowledging that it is not always possible to redeem the hardest of hearts, even with powerful magic. It’s about anger and retribution and the the heavy lifting involved in reconciliation. And it’s about the multiplicity and variety of human life, which is precisely what Terra Nova is all about.'

The Belfast Tempest runs with six performances from April 20 - 23. Audiences are advised to dress warmly, to bring cushions and supplies. Food is also available on site. For tickets visit www.terranovaproductions.net/belfast-tempest-box or contact the box office on 028 9024 2338. The Belfast Tempest is a Creative Belfast project funded by Belfast City Council and the Arts Council for Northern Ireland.