Monday, December 06, 1999

Conal Morrison's Tempest

"You can do what you like because you can never destroy the Tempest. The play is always still there," says director Conal Morrison of his new Abbey production of what is probably Shakespeare's last complete play. "The main thing is to make it something of your own and show what your version of magic in the theatre is like."

For some reason, The Tempest seems to encourage radical reinterpretation. From the 1952 sci-fi film, Forbidden Planet (in which the characters, including Robbie The Robot, find themselves on the surface of the planet Altair 4) to a 1982 version set in on a Greek holiday island (starring John Cassavetes, Susan Sarandon and Molly Ringwald) directors have attempted to put their own stamp on the play.

In taking on the Abbey's millennium production, Morrison says he has brought in a set of actors who are prepared work collaboratively, devising and creating their roles. In casting, for examples, Mikel Murfi and Donal O'Kelly, he certainly picked on actors whose abilities as physical performers separate them from most of their contemporaries and mark a break with the National Theatre’s word-based house style.

Newry-born Morrison is particularly interested in the play's local resonances. "I don't want to be heavy-handed about it," he says. "But you have the fact that all the characters are on an island. And there are other things too. People often think of the Tempest as Shakespeare's benign late plays. But when you look at it closely, it is really all about anger and the desire for revenge."

Morrison has had a busy year of it, hopping back and forth between directing the revival of Friel's Freedom of the City at the Abbey and working for musical impresario Cameron Mackintosh, re-directing the musical version of The Return of Martin Guerre. He has now directed an American cast in the show which is currently playing at Joe Dowling's Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, but which is set for a US tour.

Even though his commitments for next year tend towards "legit" (he is working on a version of Aristophenes’ the Birds for the National Theatre in London) offers to keep him working in musicals have been arriving steadily. "After Martin Guerre cassettes kept dropping though the door, but I wouldn't say I turned down anything that gave me much pause for thought. There was nothing that lifted my skirt. They all seemed to be things like musical versions of the life of Maude Gonne..."

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