The Tempest: Memory, Betrayal, Sorcery & Revenge

The Tempest in Barbican Theatre (2017) Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

The Tempest in Barbican Theatre (2017) Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

Special Report from London Contributor, Adam Blitz

Oh how we too might cry to dream again. Under the aegis of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Gregory Doran, The Tempest, Shakespeare’s so-called American play, manages to provoke and delight audiences all the while horrific news from the New World washes up on our shore.

The Tempest is a play about memory; about betrayal, sorcery and revenge. For some it is also about the iniquities of colonialism and the fate of the enslaved Caliban and spirit Ariel. But at its core The Tempest is a play about the power of language to speak, to curse, to perpetuate falsehoods and to rule.  It is only after Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, raises a storm that will shipwreck his enemies and cast them upon his isle that we learn of the dark back-story: Prospero’s brother Antonio, together with Alonso (King of Naples),  unseat the Duke and send him off to sea. There is very much one version of events that led to the twelve year banishment of Prospero and his daughter Miranda. Similarly, the accusation of rape leveled at the monstrous Caliban is also filtered through the words of the magician.

Relations had not always been so tense. When Prospero acquired the island, which had been bequeathed to Caliban by his witch-mother Sycorax, Prospero had indeed been kind:

“When thou cam’st first
Thou strok’st me and mad’st much of me, wouldst give me
Water with berries in’t, and teach me how  
To name the bigger light and how the less,
That burn by day and night. And then I loved thee,
And show’d thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle,
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile… [Act 1 Scene 2]

The action, other than the wondrous storm that ushers in the Italian protagonists, is more of a re-action that unwinds past hatreds, forges romances and scuppers murderous sub-plots. All of this is intermixed with masque and comic interlude. In the space of a day Miranda falls in love with Alonso’s son Ferdinand who is also reunited with his father. Alonso and Antonio concede. Prospero pledges forgiveness and, in an act of defiance, drowns his books and abandons his craft. He will be reinstated in his old dukedom. Ariel is freed.

The Tempest in Barbican Theatre (2017) Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

The Tempest in Barbican Theatre (2017) Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

The Tempest remains my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays.  There are a multitude of reasons: the dramatic stage directions, the mix of prose and verse, the appeal of a new world across the horizon. Joy stems from the journey; the very search for likely influences in the most diverse of places – Medea of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Montaigne’s essay “Of the Canibales”, the magus John Dee, William Strachey’s eyewitness account of the 1609 Sea Venture bound for Virginia but wrecked off the coast of Bermuda. Joy also derives from the concession that, without a direct source for the play, we may in fact be experiencing Shakespeare at his most individual and extraordinary self.  

Of Prospero I have been less equivocal. In fact I have never much liked the character. I have long questioned whether he was truly reconciled with his brother or whether all was orchestrated to secure his seat in Milan.  Simon Russell Beale’s Prospero has made me reconsider. Here is a Prospero that is conflicted and visibly troubled.  Admittedly Beale has had the opportunity to wrestle with Prospero before; not as the magician but in the guise of Ariel in Sam Mendes’ 1993 production of The Tempest. Twenty three years later and upon the same stage Beale brings a new gravitas to the role. He shatters any preconceptions.

What distinguishes this production is the RSC’s collaboration with Intel and Imaginarium Studios (The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) to create a second Ariel, Ariel as avatar, who morphs into a variety of animate and inanimate shapes as part of “live motion capture”. Mark Quarterly, an actor of tremendous physicality, dons a body-suit kitted out with sensors that record real-time data. That data is subsequently mapped (digitally) to create an avatar with 336 joints (as found in the human body). Digital Ariel is seen as a “Green Man” in a cloven pine, a broad-winged bat, and a flame or part of the ether. Quarterly holds the stage and reveals his gift.

The RSC’s Stephen Brimson Lewis (Production Design) and Sarah Ellis (Head of Digital Development) exploit available technology to terrific effect. At the same time Doran is quick to insist that the RSC is simply following in the tradition that Shakespeare too would have occupied, were he alive today.  (Tempest is after-all one of Shakespeare’s most elaborate plays with a performance history of spectacular masques-cum-extravaganza and a direction for “tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning”.)

I was fortunate to see the play in Stratford as well as in the cinema as part of the RSC’s live-screening on the 7th of February. The technology was ground-breaking. Yet it still did not detract from the delivery by any means. On the contrary the singing on the part of Iris, (Elly Condrun) Ceres and Juno against a Hockney-inspired backdrop for the masque, was first-rate.  So too were Joe Dixon’s sympathetic Caliban and Simon Tinder’s drunken Trinculo. In the course of two hours and forty-five minutes it was difficult not to be swept away.

Alas, these revels are nearly ended. Final performance is on Friday, 18 August 2017. Tickets are still available through the Royal Shakespeare Company.

By Adam Blitz, a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London and a former Fulbright scholar. He writes on cultural heritage and its demise. He is a member of PEN International. On Twitter @blitz_adam


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