On paper The Magician’s Daughter could be one of the best shows of this year’s Fringe: a sequel to The Tempest, written by legendary children’s author Michael Rosen, including live action, puppetry and production values that are not only high but stratospheric. It’s a well made play, with brilliant scenery, beautiful lighting and the sort of exquisite detail that only a writer like Rosen can infuse into such a simple narrative arc. But it’s the story of a magician rather than a wizard: a party trick that diverts us rather than entrances.
The storyline is very simple, and evades the complexity of The Tempest to the show’s detriment. Miranda, the daughter of the mage Prospero in Shakespeare’s play, herself has a daughter: an Edwardian caricature of childhood, free from mischief and draped in innocence as if Bart Simpson and Dennis the Menace had never happened to children’s fiction. Miranda’s daughter is fascinated by the magic island on which her family used to live and thinks that if she goes there maybe she can stop the malignant patter of the storm hammering on her windows. To do so she must reunite the two halves of Prospero’s staff, one held by the dim-witted Caliban, the other by chiding, ethereal Aerial.
Despite its simplicity, it’s a very confusing story and one that white-washes some dark undercurrents, with little satisfaction in its conclusion. The Tempest is a play about the relinquishing of magic – a reverse Faustus story about the danger of power and the humbleness of true heroics. By wanting to gain magic from reuniting the staff – an object with a peculiar pan-European accent - The Magician’s Daughter turns the story 360 degrees back to Faustus.
But it can’t make up its mind whether this is a good or bad thing, instead opting for a troubling compromise. Caliban, the racially other character, who loses his colour to become a pale frog-like monster is disallowed from using magic to rule the island. Whereas the white middle-class child is encouraged to use the island’s power to control nature and stop the rain. Why should one control be more valid than the other? The problem is that The Tempest is a story out of our time, with an attitude to magic at odds with the mystery and sparkle demanded by children’s storytelling.
What the show lacks in diligence it makes up for in delivery. The face of the Caliban puppet is a little too expressionless, making the puppeteer’s acting the visual focus of his dialogue. It’s a small flaw amongst a production that is otherwise exquisite in its delivery, mixing graceful movement, subtle humour and the perfect mixture of artistic and goofy. As you’d expect, Rosen’s language is also exceptional, but it dumbs down its source material, talks down to its audience and is too overburdened thematically to ever fly off as high as it could do. Magical yes, but with limited charm.