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The Tempest

I went to see The Tempest at the RSC Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon while I was there. This was the first performance of that particular play I’d ever seen, though I was vaguely familiar with the plot.

To start with the theatre itself: what an absolutely remarkable building. The play’s staging made full use of the soaring heights of the place, and of the mixed proscenium/thrust space available.

This play, I think, tops the list for abstract expressionism among Shakespeare’s plays–with a sort of cerebral awareness of the audience, a breaking of the fourth wall that of course happens in his other plays, but which is somehow much more knowing, much more existential than in others. The sorcery helps. It also seemed to me that the soliloquies were much more conscious of theatrical artifice than those in the other Shakespeare plays that I know well.

In this particular production it was often hard to know what was supposed to be real, and what a figment within Prospero’s mind (or a projection forced on others by his control). Perhaps this was a deliberate attempt to convey the utter subjectivity of experience: whether an event was caused by the doings of Prospero’s mind or it really happened, the result was the same for the people to whom it was happening. Or it could have been the result of gilding the lily of stage effects until the meaning was muddled.

Confusion seemed to be the order of the day: Prospero and Ariel were dressed in nearly identical costumes. They both had some kind of subtle white-face silvery makeup on that flattened their features. The silveriness dissolved shadows, distorting the lines of their faces and making them appear alien compared to the other actors. This effect was so subtle that it was some minutes before I realized it was makeup and not just a natural pallor. The actors had similar physical characteristics as well, heightening the sense that perhaps Ariel was actually a part of Prospero, a piece of his inner self hived off to the guise of another being.

The plot tells us that Ariel was a wraith-like spirit employed to do the bidding of the witch Sycorax, who eventually imprisoned him in a tree until Prospero released him into an indentured servitude where he must do Prospero’s bidding for a year and a day…which is of course the very day that the opportunity to bring low those who sought his downfall arrives for Prospero in the form of a ship with all the major figures of the Milanese court, which happens to pass by the tiny island where Prospero has been marooned with his daughter for the last twelve years.

But on this island is only (to our knowledge) Prospero, his daughter Miranda, Sycorax’s son Caliban, and some ‘ever-angry bears’ (these don’t actually feature in the plot as such, I just liked the phrase). Also the spirits that Prospero commands, of course, but as no one sees or acknowledges the spirits except when they are under Prospero’s direction to befuddle the shipwrecked, I wonder if they and especially Ariel could be the manufactured productions of a restless mind.

There were some wondrous moments that considered servitude, the bonds of patriarchal structure (not just towards Miranda but towards all the creatures on the island and indeed in the court), and social power differentials. This was expressed very effectively through the coats worn by the spirits, which mimicked Prospero’s own, but rougher and more rumpled, and against which Ariel was wont to struggle thorugh the action of the play, fiddling with the buttons as though they hurt him. Conversely, when the king arrives, Prospero decides to appear in the raiment of the Milanese court–to look exactly as he did when he was forced from Milan by the plotting of his brother. As he donned the formal jacket Ariel helped with the shiny buttons, looking awed that one so great and powerful as Prospero should choose to appear in a subservient garment–to yoke himself in, as it were, in the service of the king. What meaning gleaned from a glance!

As with so many Shakespearian plays, there are moments or themes that we now consider troubling that were not problematic to contemporary audiences. Fifteen year old bride-to-be? No thanks. But I’d like to devote some time to Caliban, if I may. Clearly to irk me, this brilliant critique of Caliban’s speech in the Olympics opening ceremony by Dr Bloomfield has already said pretty much everything I wanted to cover over here at his blog, Quite Irregular. I shall simply say that a postcolonial reading of Caliban might find sympathy for him. Or if not sympathy, then at least perhaps a more nuanced reading of how it is brutality that begets brutality; that oppression creates cruelty and dehumanizing tendencies among the oppressed as well as the oppressors. For let us not forget that of all the things he is, Prospero is first and foremost a man who conquers an island.

I have only been able to finish this review now because I needed some weeks to think about the nature of shipwrecks. Specifically, as the splendid programme provided by the RSC tells me, Shakespeare’s ‘shipwreck plays’ “…turn not only on what it means to be lost and found, but also on what it means to lose one’s identity, one’s sense of individuality, in the process.” Ooh! Bleak, innit? But “For almost all, in the end, it is about regaining a sense of hope, however guarded that might be.” In these last few weeks I have been reminded that it is at the very worst times in our lives, the times when the lashing of the elements strips away from us everything that is not solidly connected to the core of our being: it is only at these times that who we really are in our most secret inner hearts is exposed to us.

2 thoughts on “The Tempest

  1. Hi, Caitlin – thanks for the link! I really liked this piece as a personal response to the production – I think we can often get too concerned with “recording” the mechanics of a production as if that’s possible in an objective way and I really enjoyed reading your account of how you particularly reacted.

    That said, I also think you’re right on the more general points about metatheatre and power. Obviously theatre history can’t “prove” anything about a work or its potential now, but it can clarify the way it seems to have played out in other contexts, so yeah, I’m going with the deliberate/ definite mixing up of theatrical effect with reality. From memory, this one is often talked about in relation to the smaller, more elite and indoor playhouse at the Blackfriars which Shakespeare’s company would have had access to, where they would have had mroe control over lighting and theatrical effects. (You know the set for the Eve Best Malfi? Screamed Blackfriars to me, dunno if I was just projecting my own thoughts onto that set.) Also there’s a definite awareness of court masquing and pageantry in that banquet scene – sudden transformations, illusions being put on for the pleasure of a ruler, meaning shifting back and forth between the apparent action and what people know about those who are putting it on… All of which I think bolsters your reading of that aspect.

    And yes, the power thing also has a theatre history dimension. I don’t know the 1660s Enchanted Island (alas, as I gather it was one of the first Shakespeare musicals) but I do remember that Miranda is a big role in the Restoration theatre, which always sets off alarm bells when talking about women’s representation (in both senses) on the stage. I believe she gets a sister in the later versions, and they get a lot of extra dialogue playing on the fact that they’ve never seen a man. Creepy stuff where audience eavesdrops on two “innocent” girls discovering the idea of sexuality and arguing over who’ll have the most men, etc. Which is an indictment of the queasier side of Restoration drama, but also I think points up the fact that this play’s presentation of Miranda can easily slip into fetishizing female ignorance. Obviously the idea that the ideal young woman is one who is unaware of the facts of sexuality and has never known a man previously, has not had a glorious history in our culture. So in brief yes, troubling currents around this one – and the postcolonial angle which you’ve picked up on.

    Anyway, in short – yes, good point. And cracking article, cheers.

    • Hi Jem, thanks for your insightful commentary; I always find your thoughts on theatrical matters open up new layers of interpretation.

      I find it especially intriguing how the physical performance space affects the ability to play with levels of artifice in the production. Curious about your comment about the Malfi production–why did that one specifically make you think of the Blackfriars theatre?

      Very interesting to hear about the ‘alternate Mirandas’. I agree that the sexual innocence aspect is distressing, but I also found it interesting that it is she who proposes to the prince. Can you think of many other plays (besides the Duchess of Malfi, now that I think of it) where the woman steers the relationship in this way?

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