Theatre: Power play on a lonely isle

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WHEN DID you last see a black actor playing Caliban? It isn't, admittedly, as much of a rarity as the sight of a white actor playing Othello, but the infrequency may be a sign that the colonialist implications of The Tempest have tended to be downplayed in favour of stressing other themes - power, and limitations of art.

The casting of black actors, both as Caliban and as Ariel, is crucial, though, to Une Tempete, a radical rewriting of Shakespeare's last play, proffered now from Caliban's perspective, by Aime Cesaire, the French- West Indian poet, politician, and coiner of the term "negritude".

First published in 1968, the piece receives its British premiere now, in a stylish, funny and astringent production by Mick Gordon at The Gate.

Some years back, Jonathan Miller made a striking feature of race in a staging of The Tempest, which presented Ariel and Caliban as examples of the different responses among tribes, in countries like Nigeria, to paternalist white authority. Ariel was the educated, westernised ironist, playing along, learning all the skills, and poised to seize control the moment the oppressor vacated the island. Picking up and repairing Prospero's broken staff at the end, he was clearly anticipating a future where his tribe would wield power over the island's Calibans, whom colonialism had demoralised.

In Une Tempete, the differences between the two characters are ideological and highly conscious, as well as a matter of temperament. Broadly speaking, Cesaire's play duplicates the action of the original, but he invents a central theme where Ariel and Caliban argue over what is the best strategy for achieving freedom. Facing down charges of Uncle Tom-ism, Michael Wildman's slender, sensitive Ariel insists that it is only by creating a conscience in Prospero, thus paradoxically including the slave driver in the liberation, that they will achieve their ends. Andrew Dennis's imposing, sardonic Caliban jeers that it would be about as sensible to wait for a rock to burst into flower. "I want freedom now," he proclaims. If that has a familiar ring as the slogan of the Black Power movement, then the sequence in which Caliban contemptuously informs Prospero that he wishes to be called "X", "like a man without a name - or, more precisely, like a man who has had his name stolen", specifically identifies the character with Malcolm X.

Of course, Shakespeare's Tempest contains its own critique of Prospero, and its complex characterisation of Caliban anticipates the revisionists' own game. But Cesaire takes the questioning much further.

For example, the rape charge against Caliban becomes, in this version, the foisting of Prospero's own illicit sexual urges on a scapegoat - the kind of kinky white fantasies of the black man that give rise to schlock plantation novels.

Mick Gordon's production plays some delightfully witty tricks with scale (there's a miniature beachscape with a lightbulb sun and a tray of sand which Ferdinand is obliged to smooth with a spoon-sized hoe). It also expertly sustains the brisk, jokey tone which Une Tempete adopts when guying large areas of the original.

Looking a touch like Oliver Hardy, and burbling drunken nonsense in the august, bass tones of someone covering a coronation, Mike Hayley is quite the funniest Stefano I've ever seen.

Altogether, an auspicious start for Gordon's regime as The Gate's artistic director.

To 14 October: 0171-229 5387