The RSC’s high-tech Tempest: acting, poetry and technology spellbind together

The RSC’s high-tech <em>Tempest</em>: acting, poetry and technology spellbind together

Another splendid evening this week in our local Picturehouse last week watching the RSC’s dazzling staging of The Tempest, featuring magnificent and memorable performances by Simon Russell Beale as Prospero and Mark Quartley as Ariel. This is the production that utilises performance capture technology from Imaginarium Studios to render Ariel’s animated avatar live in three dimensions on the Stratford stage. Brilliant as the special effects were, it was the acting which held us spellbound. Continue reading “The RSC’s high-tech Tempest: acting, poetry and technology spellbind together”

Trevor Nunn on The Tempest

Trevor Nunn on The Tempest

BBC 4 is putting on something of a Shakespeare extravaganza at the moment, headlined by the new adaptation of the Hollow Crown sequence of plays which I have not yet seen.  But the other night they screened a brilliant and moving  examination by Trevor Nunn of The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last complete play and, Nunn assured us, his most autobiographical. Prospero and playwright were both 50, both in their way magicians at the height of their powers, and in control of their globe.

Nunn explained why The Tempest can be regarded as Shakespeare’s most experimental play, telling how it was written specifically for an indoor theatre, its special effects not compatible with an afternoon performance at the Globe, open to the sky.  Shakespeare and his company took over another theatre – the Blackfriars – in order to present the play in candlelight and with special aerial effects. He visited rehearsals for an American production of The Tempest in a replica of the Blackfriars in Virginia that uses 17th century staging techniques and special effects.

Nunn also delved into the inspiration for the story – uniquely for a Shakespeare play, there was no existing fictional story that he drew upon.  It’s possible, Nunn suggests, that Shakespeare was influenced by a real event – the wreck and stranding of Sir Thomas Gates and 500 others from the vessel The Sea Venturer on the island of Bermuda in 1609 that had been described in several contemporary accounts.

Heathcote Williams as Prospero in Derek Jarman’s film of The Tempest

Trevor Nunn incisively explores the themes of magic, revenge and forgiveness that are expressed through the story of the magus Prospero, abandoned on an island with his daughter Miranda. One of the main questions of the play, Nunn explains, is will Prospero be capable of forgiveness?  He has used his great powers to bring his enemies ashore on the same island, and now they are at his mercy. But, as Nunn explains, the opportunity for Prospero to wreak revenge upon those who abandoned him ultimately leads to a profound exploration of love and forgiveness.

Turning to the question of Caliban, Nunn was not especially impressed with the tendency of modern criticism and productions to make European colonialism the central theme of this play.  He suggested that the play is located much more firmly in a Mediterranean context than in the New World.  Furthermore, aspects of Prospero’s character and circumstance do not sit easily with any interpretation that portrays him as ‘another white colonialist’, when he has, in fact, been cast adrift and the island has been his lifeline, while Caliban is not a native of the island. No-one is native to the island.

In the most deeply felt part of his presentation, Nunn analysed The Tempest as an intensely autobiographical piece.  So his depiction of the relationship between Miranda and her father was, Nunn suggests, informed by the imminent marriage of his own daughter to a man whose reputation was not exactly solid.  Above all, Shakespeare seems to have had a presentiment that this might be the last play he would ever write, and so felt the need to speak of his life: the decades in the theatre, and his achievement as a writer.

Nunn regards Prospero’s speech at the marriage of his daughter to Ferdinand as ‘one of the most poetic and consoling speeches Shakespeare ever wrote’.   Addressing the young couple, Prospero talks about the fragility and transience of life itself:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And—like the baseless fabric of this vision—
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. …

Nunn feels ‘100% certain’ that there is an autobiographical ingredient here, drawing attention to Shakespeare’s use of the phrase ‘the great globe itself’ – partly meaning, of course, the world, but being also the name of his theatre, the Globe.  Shakespeare is saying, ‘all of our shows, all of these things we’ve created here: they won’t be around any more’.

Something powerful is stirring in Prospero as he tries to come to terms with those who have wronged him.  Nunn analyses the scene in which Ariel describes the fear and distress of those Prospero has under his spell:

Confined together
In the same fashion as you gave in charge,
Just as you left them; all prisoners, sir,
In the line-grove which weather-fends your cell;
They cannot budge till your release. The king,
His brother and yours, abide all three distracted
And the remainder mourning over them,
Brimful of sorrow and dismay; but chiefly
Him that you term’d, sir, ‘The good old lord Gonzalo;’
His tears run down his beard, like winter’s drops
From eaves of reeds. Your charm so strongly works ’em
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.

To which Prospero responds, ‘Dost thou think so, spirit?’  Nunn sees Ariel’s reply as the key moment when Prospero decides to relinquish his magical powers, as his non-human spirit talks about human compassion: ‘Mine would, sir, were I human’.  Nunn sees a special poignancy in Prospero’s surrender of his powers, since he feels that Shakespeare is, in part, writing about himself.

Shakespeare, like Prospero, has spent years conjuring with his imagination.  But after The Tempest he will write no more plays.  Calling up his spirits for one last time, Prospero remembers his extraordinary accomplishments:

… I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book

Shakespeare, too, has summoned countless visions, and brought the dead to life.  ‘The connection I see between Shakespeare and Prospero, makes this for me a particularly moving speech’, said Nunn.  Shakespeare, he suggests, is not saying ‘I’m abandoning you’, but ‘I’m leaving you with everything I have to offer… I want it to stay with you, but I have to go’.  Both Helen Mirren and Dr Rowan Williams speak eloquently of this moment in the play.  Rowan Williams:

With so many great artists, it seems, there comes a point where they seen their own work, their own utterance, as having resolved nothing.  They empty their hands … the the sense of the all-powerful, magical figure manipulating stories, suddenly saying ‘I can’t do this any loner –  I have to become human’ – I think that is something that is bound into the really great artists’ work..

Nunn also pinpoints how potent is the idea that we are call entitled to our freedom in the play.  He gives his spirit slave Ariel the freedom he yearns for:

then to the elements
Be free, and fare thou well!

Prospero forgives those who have wronged him, including his would-be murderer, Caliban.  ‘And so’, said Nunn, ‘at the end of his last play, Shakespeare tells us that the struggle to achieve forgiveness can be won.  Prospero manages to forgive, and in doing so, he frees himself.

Finally, Nunn returns to the parallels between Prospero and Shakespeare.  In the Epilogue, no longer empowered, he makes a plea of great simplicity.  He steps forward and asks us, the audience, to set him free. Prospero, who ends the play by giving up his magic just as Shakespeare gave up his own theatrical magic to return to Stratford where, only two years later, he died. Nunn, barely holding back tears, recites the epilogue, reading from the headstone in the churchyard where Shakespeare is buried:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint …

But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

Trevor Nunn concludes:

For me The Tempest will always be exceptional, not just for its wisdom and humanity, but because more than any of his other plays, it leads us to the essence of the man who wrote them.  My feeling is that it’s in The Tempest, through the character of Prospero, that we get closest to the workings of the mind of that genius, William Shakespeare.

See also

Prospera’s Tempest

Prospera’s Tempest

If by your art, my dearest mother, you have
Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them…

No harm.
I have done nothing but in care of thee,
Of thee, my dear one, thee, my daughter, who
Art ignorant of what thou art, nought knowing
Of whence I am, nor that I am more better
Than Prospera …

Julie Taymor’s film adaptation of The Tempest has received rather lukewarm reviews from the critics, but four of us saw it on Saturday night and enjoyed it immensely. The film has weaknesses, but there is much to relish, too.

Taymor, who has worked both in film (directing a version of Titus Andronicus in 1999) and theatre, is not the first to recast Prospero as a woman.  So here the central role of Prospero, exiled Duke of Milan cast up on a barren island has been recast as the female Prospera, played by Helen Mirren who gives a magnificent performance that, if nothing else, makes the film worth seeing.

It’s doesn’t require a great leap of imagination to see Prospero as a woman –  after all, women with independent minds were often accused of witchcraft in the patriarchal societies of Shakespeare’s time.   Apart from that, not much has been changed. The setting, the language and the themes of the original play remain intact.  There’s a lot of back story and exposition in the opening scene between Miranda and Prospera, but Helen Mirren is one of those actors who can articulate the 17th century verse so clearly for a modern audience that the overriding theme of the play – Propera’s change of heart, from revenge to forgiveness – is made crystal clear.  In fact, most of the performers speak Shakespeare’s lines beautifully, finding nuances of humour and feeling in the prose and poetry.

Perhaps due to the way that the computer graphics were applied in the scenes with Ariel,  Taymor seemed to be emphasising the idea of restitution or restoration alongside forgiveness.  During Prospera’s speech in which she reminds Ariel of how she freed him from his confinement in ‘a cloven pine’, the CG imagery of Ariel’s face, imprisoned in the tree bark, seemed reminiscent of images of the Green Man; and the best use of CGI in the film comes at the moment when Ariel is freed, and his being dissolves, restored to nature.

Where the bee sucks, there suck I:
In a cowslip’s bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat’s back I do fly
After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.

This is the play that contains some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful language, especially in those lines in which Prospera renounces her powers and Shakespeare in this, his last play, perhaps accepts how his own time onstage will end too:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on


And thence retire me to my Milan, where
Every third thought shall be my grave.


But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.

The film will no doubt draw an audience of younger screen-goers because Trinculo is played by Russell Brand – who presumably wasn’t required to act in order to portray a convincing fool, which he does very well.  The CGI effects also may well draw a younger audience – which is all to the good – though I found some of the special effects –  in the opening shipwreck scene, for example – simply loud and flashy.  The costume design, too was obtrusive, a fusion of Elizabethan and contemporary, with zips everywhere.

Some of the acting is unconvincing, too.  The two young lovers, Miranda (Felicity Jones) Ferdinand (Reeve Carney) are simply sweet and insipid, while Djimon Hounsou’s monotone portrayal of Caliban removes any complexity, any sense of dignity or nobility from the character. The themes of colonialism and slavery are underplayed in this adaptation.  Caliban feels betrayed by Prospera (just as Prospera has been betrayed by her own brother), feelings that he expresses in his first speech, when he addresses Prospera:

This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou takest from me. When thou camest first,
Thou strokedst me and madest 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’ the isle,
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile …

Shakespeare probably based The Tempest on Montaigne’s essay Of Cannibals, and in an online essay Michael O’Toole, analyses the portrayal of Caliban and makes significant distinctions between the approach of the two writers:

Montaigne exalts the cannibals for having maintained a civilization so natural and unartificial, but Shakespeare asserts that when exposed to modern civilization, the cannibals become no different than the Europeans. The moderns employ their magic powers – intelligence, technology, and liquor – to subjugate and oppress the cannibals. Yet the cannibals willingly allow themselves to be captivated and entrapped by the spell of modernity. Whereas Montaigne praises the cannibals and places blame on modern Europeans, Shakespeare asserts that neither the cannibals nor the Europeans deserve praise – save for a few rare individuals, they are both equally pathetic.

Beyond casting Helen Mirren as the female Prospero, Julie Taymor sticks mostly to the surface of the text, illustrating language that’s already filled with imagery. But it’s Mirren’s performance that lingers in the memory, maybe because of this:

The Tempest is, perhaps above all, the portrait — the self-portrait — of an artist on the verge of saying farewell to his art. By abjuring her “rough magic,” burying her magician’s staff and drowning her book of spells, Prospera elects to live in a world without supernatural possibilities; having demonstrated the power of art, she accepts the limits of that power and forsakes hubris for humility.
review, New York Times

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint: now, ’tis true…