The response I most dread feeling to a show is not outright antipathy (that can be invigorating in its way) but a listless, "Well, it's perfectly fine by its own lights, but what's it for?" We know the intention behind the current ensemble season in the Swan at Stratford under Gregory Doran: to show us a clutch of lesser remembered examples of the whole range of Elizabethan-Jacobean theatre. We know what John Fletcher's The Island Princess (1621) is doing in this selection: it represents the genre of travel plays. But neither of these quite answers the question.
The story – of differing factions among both the natives and the Portuguese colonists in the Moluccan "spice islands" – hurtles along at high speed. Imprisonment and liberation, concealment and disguise, resolution and inaction, and the bombardment of a couple of towns, are all given narrative form by the characters' contention for the hand of the beautiful but determined title character. Princess Quisara is a cut-price Cleopatra in her manipulations of others for her own ambitions and in her diametrical changes of mind, and Sasha Behar gets full value out of emotions and intelligence alike.
The men surrounding Quisara contain every convenient archetype. David Rintoul as Portuguese captain Ruy Dias is eloquent and self-regarding but fatally slow to act; Joe Dixon's scene-stealing King of Bakam is a low-comedy version of the same, a big-talking coward. As Armusia, the "Portugal" who wins first the hand and then the heart of Quisara, Jamie Glover is honest, principled and sometimes a little too straightforward for the goings-on around him. He, too, is mirrored by Quisara's brother (played by Michael Matus), whose kingship is rendered ineffectual through trusting too much. The evil governor of the neighbouring island is a fairly conventional Jacobean villain, who in Paul Bhattacharjee's portrayal disguises himself as a swami equal parts Maharishi and bin Laden. We are most drawn to the combination of cynicism, bluntness and good heart in Antony Byrne's Pyniero.
It all indulges a voracious taste for exotica, which Doran's production and Niki Turner's design point up as the sea-stained Portuguese rub shoulders with opulently clad Indonesian characters, all accompanied by a gamelan orchestra upstage. And the exotica seems to be the only point. (We can ignore suggestions made in notes to the published play text that the different factions of colonists were intended to represent the struggle between the Dutch and English for control of the Moluccas; this is entirely irrelevant to what we see on stage.)
Until, that is, the final half-hour of the show. Then, prompted by the false priest, Quisara asks her beloved Armusia to convert to her religion, he refuses with such vehemence that war breaks out, and in the end his steadfast rectitude wins Quisara and possibly her brother also over to Christianity. The message is, in effect, that it's nice to pass time and company with foreigners, but when it comes down to it we're right, because we just know we are and anyway we have bigger guns. And that seems to me to be a dangerous subtext at this particular moment in history. So it's perfectly fine by its own lights, but what's The Island Princess for in 2002? On the surface, too little; beneath it, all too much.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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