When your brother betrays you for power, can you forgive him?

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Prospero, the Duke of Milan, lost his title when his brother, Antonio, conspired to usurp his position. Together with his daughter, Prospero is kidnapped and left to die on a raft out at sea. They survive, thanks to supplies and Prospero’s books, the source of his magic and power. 12 years later, after arriving at an island, his enemies are sent his way, and Prospero, filled with rage, raises the tempest to set things right once and for all.

Is forgiveness on the cards? We speak to British director, writer and actor, Simon Robson, who plays Prospero in The Tempest as part of the Singapore Repertory Theatre’s annual Shakespeare in the Park (through May 24).

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You were fantastic out there.
Thank you. Prospero is an amazing part to play. I’ve never done an outside show before. Being miked is quite a challenge because there’s a need to get used to the idea. You’d think it’s difficult to fill the entire park with dialogue, but I think they do it so well here.

Are you a big fan of Shakespeare?
Yes, definitely. When I was in school, I played Hamlet. I was 17 then, and you pretty much do that when you’re 17. Shakespeare is a challenge to do, for obvious reasons, but it’s very exciting.

What do you like about his work, such as The Tempest, in particular?
That there’s every aspect to what it is to be human. In The Tempest, it’s a very forgiving world. This is a perfect example of what people do, and you sort of understand why people do things in a certain fashion. It’s lighthearted comedy, which I like as compared to tragedy. Comedies are a forgiving idea of what life is and how rich it is. You can relate easily, and that’s what’s so wonderful about doing this anywhere, everywhere. Language is universal, which makes history and politics understood in a very accessible way.

How close is this play to the original production?
That’s an interesting question. It’s probably closer than a lot of times it’s been done. There were two theatres that the original might have been done at. It could have either been the Globe, an open ampitheatre, or an indoor theatre in intimate setting. Having to act right back here with microphones, for some people, is mainly an audio experience because they can’t necessarily see the expressions on our faces. But it’s still an authentic experience anyway, having to do it outdoors in a big way like this.

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Isn’t The Tempest one of Shakespeare’s more musical plays?
That’s correct. We even have some of the original music, such as Ariel’s songs, which are very famous. There are plenty of special effects too. In this sense, it’s quite a modern spectacle, like multimedia.

For a play written in 1611, it’s remained quite modern. Is it one of his last?
Definitely. Academics often discuss whether Prospero saying goodbye is a metaphor for Shakespeare leaving the theatre. Personally, it could mean a lot of things. I don’t think he would have just written the play just for that. It’s all about the creative process, about forgiveness and a lot of things. Prospero controls the story with the help of Ariel, an inspired figure. He enables the story to happen by intervention, and at the end, you see him working it out.

Was it difficult for you to ease into character?
It’s a very varied character in the sense that he’s very much enraged by Caliban. He’s enamoured by Ariel, protective of his daughter and also prepared to manipulate the story. There’s an awful lot of challenge to work out the different elements yet make sense and not contradict the audience. Things change during the course of the show. He forgives everybody, embraces Caliban, and accepts that since he has no magic, it is time to join the real world again. It’s a long journey.

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Sounds awfully like an honest character.
Yes, for good and for bad. That’s what’s wonderful about it. It’s political, in a way as well. The whole opening scene is trying to be honest and what he did wrong. It’s not just about his brother Antonio, that he’s a terrible man who did a terrible thing. He accepted the responsibility too, that he gave Antonio the power to do such things.

Sounds political, all right.
Politics become art, and if you can work something out in art, you can work politics out too. What you want from politicians is for them to be imaginative about solutions, isn’t it? How to cope with tyranny and injustice… It’s not all about punishment, but teaching them lessons.

Like you said, forgiveness. What’s it like to perform this same thing every night anyway?
It gets more fun. I relish each one I do. Each night is completely different when you play a big part. You find new things each time, things that you never did before or took for granted. It’s like reading a book over and over. It’s great fun, and it keeps you going.

Shakespeare in the Park runs through 24 May at Fort Canning Park, Cox Terrace, Singapore 179618. Tickets are from $45 to $55, available at Sistic. Pack yourself plenty of food, alcohol and a picnic mat.

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Shakespeare in the Park: The Tempest

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