Shakespeare's Globe, London SE1
Opened 21 July, 1998

"Some of these characters haven't appeared on the Globe stage before," enthused its artistic director Mark Rylance at the curtain call. Well, they certainly made a bizarre enough debut in Cuban company Teatro Buendía's treatment of The Tempest.

In Otra Tempestad (Another Tempest), the shipwrecked souls cast up on Prospero's island consist of Shylock, Macbeth, Othello and a clownish Hamlet. Miranda falls for Caliban where her father wishes her to marry Othello; Prospero tries to found a Utopian republic, which gives way to a likewise foredoomed kingdom of blood under Macbeth; Shylock (I'm a little hazy on this point) was in his youth apparently Romeo; most significantly, the island is haunted by the daughters of the witch Sycorax, who happen to be Yoruba deities most prominently Eleggua (the trickster spirit known in Voodoo as Legba), who is hypnotised into assuming the role of Ariel. You get the picture?

No, nor me. Director Flora Lauten and dramaturg Raquel Carrió have drawn for their material on a raft of texts from Bacon's The New Atlantis to Carpentier, Paz and Baudrillard. Yoruba and Arara chants and songs are included, along with bits of tribalistic dance, to predominantly percussive music from the gallery; characters don masks to signify madness or possession (and Prospero's heavy make-up makes it look as if he is constantly wearing such a mask, part-Kathakali, part-Minoan); and the whole thing is utterly bewildering.

Without the programme's scene-by-scene synopsis, I would have had little or no idea what was going on from moment to moment; even with it, there is no indication of why what is happening, is happening. There is, of course, no reason to treat Shakespeare with ossifying reverence but this particular gallimaufry seems to have been put together simply for its own sake. It is constantly eye-catching, with its set-piece sequences and an ebullient performance from Giselle Navaroli as Eleggua/Ariel... but to no apparent end. There may be a parabolic subtext commenting upon the state of their native Cuba (and that beard of Prospero's is quite Fidelista, after all), but if so it lurks, along with any palpable significance of any kind, full fathom five below the surface.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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