The Island Princess, by John Fletcher, RSC, The Gielgud Theatre, London


10 DECEMBER 2002

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The Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London, reverberates with the steady heady hypnotic throb of a gamelan orchestra, sounds that conjure exotic images of eastern temples and mysterious religious ritual. Three full length hanging Indian silks separate the cross-legged musicians from their enchanted audience, whilst on either side finely carved wooden balconies silently announce an oriental palace, a place of mysticism, a place of incense, a place of spice-laden air, a place of pagan gods. Behind the gamelan players looms an all-embracing deity silhouetted menacingly against the terracotta brickwork. This is the Indonesian island of Tidore, the land of The Island Princess Quisara, sister to the kidnapped King of this resource rich Moluccan isle.

The music pulsates faster and faster as if to waken the slumbering gods, inducing a trance-like state as the wall of sound increases in intensity, exciting and anticipating sensual, sexual abandonment in a far-off land of innocence and plenty. The music reaches its climax, pounding the repetitive strokes in contrapuntal ecstasy, until suddenly the agonizing bliss is broken -- by a single clanging bell. On and on the bell sounds in alarm as three languorous adventurers in black leather doublet and hose, machismo-stiffened codpieces, and brandishing swords and pistols, invade the sanctity of this island paradise. With sadistic ennui, one of the Europeans raises his pistol, shoots high, and the bell ceases to ring. The westerner, the colonizer, the trader, the infiltrator, the exploiter, has announced his presence.

This particular pistol-toting adventurer is Pyniero, a Portuguese seaman, whose attitude towards the native island population is one of distrust and suspicion. Ruggedly portrayed by Anthony Byrne, Pyniero would never achieve the power over life and death he wields on this idyllic island back in his native Portugal. Half clown, half agent provocateur, deftly running errands for his uncle, the Portuguese Captain Ruy Dias, Pyniero is typical of those fortune seeking adventurers eager to escape not only boredom, but more often their own criminal pasts.

Pyniero's cynicism extends to the most beautiful of the island's inhabitants, and despite their naive but manipulative advances he remains cool and controlled, ever willing to manage a situation of love, intrigue or revenge. Captain Ruy Dias, splendidly but austerely attired like a mongrel of Hispanic conquistador meets Mediterranean Malvolio, is magnificently portrayed by David Rintoul as a blustering, arrogant and vain specimen of Portuguese gallanthood who swaggers his way around his self-styled colonial possession with the air of a man blessed with a mission from his Christian God. No wonder he wears his Christianity on his sleeve -- literally -- a blood-red cross blazoned on his right arm proclaims louder than a Lisbon cathedral choir the clash of eastern and western religions so vital to the action of the play.

Ruy Dias is besotted with the Princess Quisara, who in turn appears to return the Portuguese Captain's advances, playfully enticing his passions, but apparently ever conscious of her aristocratic superiority. There are times it appears Ruy Dias will never succeed in completing a sentence, let alone winning the hand of his love, his expansive but laboured courtly delivery proving too cumbersome, especially for one as quick-witted and quick-tongued as the Princess Quisara. Sasha Behar's performance as Quisara is one of studied regal dignity and beauty. Her delivery firm but mellifluous, Behar commands the stage, her poised gestures reminiscent of classical Indian dance, her elegant poses as vibrant as the bas-relief carvings on a Chalukyan temple dedicated to love and eroticism.

But Ruy Dias is not alone in his adulation of Quisara, as she is courted by both the King's of Bakam and Syana, local island rulers who display the excesses of Jacobean attitudes to those 'others' of foreign lands. Joe Dixon's outrageous Bakam, like a genie on speed, confronts his rivals with a Polynesian-style haka that would put the All-Blacks to shame. Avin Shah as Syana is more circumspect, ever hopeful to win his prize through less exacting means. However, the villain of the piece, in true machiavellian style, is the Governor of the neighbouring island of Ternata, played with pantomimic panache by Paul Bhattacharjee.

It is the Governor who has stolen the King of Tidore and imprisoned him in his citadel on Ternata. It is the Governor who returns disguised as an Indian mystic, taunting the audience and spreading doubt and unrest among the Tidorean islanders against their Portuguese interlopers. It is the Governor, too, who displays a defiant contempt at his own eventual downfall, with a gesture of the head that speaks volumes about the colonial future of these troubled lands. Now, though, he is asking for the hand in marriage of the King's own sister, Quisara. What can Quisara do but offer her love and marriage to any man who can rescue her brother, an offer intended for the over-cautious Ruy Dias who not only fails to act swiftly enough, but fails to act at all?

Quisara's pledge is overheard by the newly arrived adventurer, Armusia, swashbucklingly portrayed by Jamie Glover. Disguised as natives, Armusia and his accomplices raid the neighbouring island of Ternata, and rescue Quisara's brother, the King. In a scene of deep tenderness and sadness, Vincent Brimble as the King's gaoler expounds the virtues of the unfortunate King of Tidore, who despite his wicked and torturous incarceration at the hand of the Governor, retains his majestic dignity and aristocratic fortitude. For John Fletcher, writing in 1621, the portrayal of a foreign King still seems to demand, or command, a respect reserved for western aristocracy. This illustrates the play's colonial, as opposed to proto-imperial roots; the colony as a trading post, reliant on the goodwill of the native population and the sustained elevation of its ruling elite.

Michael Matus, as the King of Tidore, plays the unfortunate monarch with mesmeric grace and humility, coupled with a power and sense of righteous purpose reminiscent of a royal Mahatma Ghandi. The innocent ruler, untouched by the commodification of his islands by the Portuguese, cares nothing for his own life, everything for the lives of his people. Matus's song of lament in the underground gaol is hauntingly delivered, and the gauche humour of his attempts to appear 'equal' to his lowly saviours is touching and poignant.

As in all good dramatic plots, Armusia's actions, and his determination to receive his prize, eventually lead to Quisara's rejection of Ruy Dias, and the transfer of her affections to her brother's hero. Glover convincingly portrays the passionate lover, but equally convincingly plays the religious zealot, amazed at his betrothed's suggestion that he should convert to her polytheistic island religion. Armusia's wildly expressed gnostic paroxysms against the devil he sees in Quisara -- fears of sin and damnation that would have appeared understandable to his Jacobean audience -- seem so far from the comparative religious tolerance of today. Glover deftly succeeds in expressing this spiritual anguish; and despite the somewhat sudden conversion of Quisara to Christianity, which could have imposed a moment of theatrical high farce on the evening, was instead greeted with an uncomfortably wry smile by this twentieth century audience.

Gregory Doran's wondrous production captures the colonial spirit of John Fletcher's Jacobean portrayal of the violation of Tidore and its inhabitants, by merchants and traders who are themselves no better than sword-wielding pirates, seventeenth century corsaires intent on plunder and mercantile gain. The cries against twentieth century corporate globalization are echoed in this fanciful tale of an island group held under the financial sway of the Portuguese.

How strange then to know that John Fletcher based this wonderful fable on a real incident that occurred a decade earlier, as narrated in the travel journal of a certain Captain Saris who sailed and traded in the Moluccan Islands in his pepper and spice trading ship, the Clove. There really was a warring pair of islands called 'Ternate' and 'Tydore,' and the wily 'Portugall,' as Saris chooses to call the European colonizers, with contrived neutrality chose a political middle ground, supporting both factions in an attempt to divide and rule. By the 1620s the Portuguese had lost their stranglehold on the area, and the topicality of Fletcher's play reflects those new concerns about Anglo-Dutch colonial rivalry in the area. The tenuous and volatile trading position of the twenty-one-year-old East India Company adds a sense of purpose to this delightful tale that is lost on a modern audience. For playgoers at the Globe, stormclouds had already begun to gather in Indonesia, resulting in the infamous Amboyna massacre of English merchants by the Dutch in 1623.

This is what is so exciting about the RSC's season of Jacobean drama, conceived by the director of The Island Princess, Gregory Doran. Doran's credentials as a director, ever willing to confront difficult plays, such as his famous 1996 Swan Theatre production of Fletcher and Shakespeare's Henry VIII starring Jane Lapotaire and Paul Jesson, places him in a wonderful position to bring these relatively unknown but evocative pieces to the West End of London via the Swan Theatre Summer Season in Stratford. Doran's meticulous attention to detail, coupled with the humour and honesty he draws out of the text and performers, makes for a delightful evening. Likewise, the music, under the direction of Adrian Lee, sets the tone for the entire production, subtly transporting the audience to an 'other' place and another time. The Island Princess deserves this artistic attention -- Shakespeare trusted Fletcher enough to collaborate with him, and Fletcher eventually superseded Shakespeare as the major playwright for the King's Men at the Globe. Watching The Island Princess provides a glimpse into the varied and wonderful world of Jacobean drama -- a journey of discovery that the RSC has at last invited us to join.

© Kevin Quarmby 2002