By William Shakespeare
Directed by: Julie Hartley
Performances: November 17-20, 2004
Venue: Theatre of the Arts, Modern Languages Building
The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s most magical plays, but how do we interpret that magic for a modern audience more likely to respond to the presence of fairies and spirits with cynicism than expressions of delight? Any play that calls for visual spectacle has a tough time in a technological age where the sight of aliens exploding, cities cloaked in a new ice age and spectacular combats aboard moving vehicles elicit barely a grasp from an audience.
Directors of recent years have tackled the problem of the play’s visual spectacle with varying degrees of success. The “strange shapes” called for in the banquet scene, for example, have resulted in a multitude of renditions, from barnacles, hedgehogs and apes to balaclava-wearing construction workers, or from actors encased in duvet covers, to green-faced Martians. Similarly, directors have responded to the challenge of the masque scene with airborne acrobats, palm-top puppets, and opera singers in period costumes. Given the visual demands of the play, it is hardly surprising that many directors have abandoned attempts to create magic, preferring instead to focus on the political aspects of the play.
Our aim has been to seek a relevant political interpretation of the play, not by downplaying its magic but rather by exploring spiritual and quasi-religious aspects of “magic” within the play. This idea emerged when we discovered that there was no critical consensus as to the source of Prospero’s magic; whether he brought it with him to the island or acquired it somehow upon his arrival. Shakespeare’s Prospero aims to succeed as over-lord of the island where he failed as Duke of Milan; our Prospero does so by controlling and subverting the spiritual life of its natives, using their power for his own means. Ironically, this interpretation opened up new avenues of exploration for us when it came to visual spectacle. It allowed us to contrast the rich, spiritual culture of the island with the stark, political one of the strangers shipwrecked on its shores, and to look at the way in which religion becomes a tool in the subversion and control of an entire people. It also allowed us to creative visual spectacle primarily through the movement of bodies in space rather needing the aid of technology.
The Tempest is, above all, a play about power. What happens to those who have it, and to those whose minds are twisted by their hunger for it? Most characters in this play struggle to gain or maintain power- at the expense of friendship, love and personal dignity. In fact, Prospero’s entire life can be seen as a journey towards a better understanding of power. But just as power struggles caused Prospero to suffer in Milan more than a decade ago, so the play points forward to a grim future upon his return to Dukedom.