The Royal Shakespeare Company season of Jacobean plays in which five rare and largely unknown scripts are given their opportunity to seduce the modern theatre audience into believing that they are ancient classics newly discovered and rightly retrieved from the theatrical dustbin of history, includes “The Island Princess” by John Fletcher.
The production presents the play as a light-hearted story about Portuguese swashbucklers who arrive on the Indonesian island of Tidore drawn by the beautiful women and the bounteous riches that are so readily available. The island’s Princess Quisara (Sasha Behar), vows to marry the man who will rescue her brother, King of Tidore, who is being held captive by the nefarious Governor of the neighbouring island of Ternata. Quisara hopes that Ruy Dias (David Rintoul) a Portuguese captain who she is fond of will rescue her brother, but alas Ruy Dias’s speech is far more valiant then any of his actions. In the meantime the Portuguese adventurer Armusia (Jamie Glover) rescues the King and claims the Princess’s hand in marriage. Will the Princess be true to her word and give up her aspirations to marry Ruy Dias?
Gregory Doran directs the play with tongue-in-cheek buoyancy that readily suits the tenor of the first act, however it does not prepare us for the violent clash of faith and values that occurs in the second half. The Governor of Ternata seeking revenge on his enemies disguises himself as a priest and advises the king to be weary of the Portuguese infidels. When asked by the princess to renounce his Catholic religion Armusia turns into a religious maniac who curses the islands god’s and threatens them with destruction whilst accusing the princess of being a satanic Jezebel. For this crime the King imprisons him and the Portuguese adventurers now threaten to destroy the island to revenge their honour. It is only when the Princess embraces Christianity and the meddling priest is revealed to be the Governor of Ternata that disaster is narrowly avoided. Any real sense of drama within the plot had by this time been smothered by the first acts overworked sense of merriment.
It seems that elements of the play are much darker than this production would first have you believe and the issue of colonialism is only slightly touched upon. One is never sure in this production what Fletcher felt about Colonialism. Was he condemning or praising it? For myself I could not help put feel that this was a missed opportunity to have this play speak to the modern theatre audience who is being told that they are in the midst of a religious crusade against the civilised world by a group of infidel heathens.
The costumes are rich and lavish and even the use of a few simple hanging drapes which shimmer in the different colored lights that flood the stage create a sense of exuberance. Add to this the soothing melodious rhythms of the gamelan orchestra and one has the feeling of an exotic spice paradise, despite the nearly bare stage.
The story itself quickly moves along and there is very little time to become bored with the plot. The acting from the entire cast, as one expects from the RSC, cannot be faulted. Jamie Glover as Armousia, the swashbuckling hero brings a warm and generous spirit to his character. Michael Matus as King of Tidore as a nobility and gentleness that makes him endearing. David Rintoul brings the perfect delicate mixture of buffoonery and gentility to his portrayal of Ruy Dias that one cannot help put feel some pity for his character.
The women also have some strong roles in this play, however I feel that her two female companions outshine Sasha Behar who plays Princess Quisara, the principle female character in this play. Claire Benedict, who plays Quisana, the Princess’s aunt, has a nobility of character that is reflected in her every posture whilst Shelley Conn as Penura, the lady in waiting has a beguiling impish manner that makes her a delight to watch.
However, despite the great costumes, the fast moving plot and the superb acting the play fails to make a lasting impression. Despite Doran’s attempts to invigorate this production he appears to have relied too much on frivolous comedy in presenting this 400 year-old script to the modern audience.
Notices from the popular press....
LYN GARDNER for THE GUARDIAN says, "The problem is that it is hard to fathom the modern meaning or appeal of the story." DOMINIC MAXWELL for TIME OUT says "Too daft for a serious play, and too light on gags for a comedy." PETER HEPPLE for THE STAGE says, "Fast-moving and occasionally both erotic and amusing."
External links to full reviews from newspapers