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July 29, 2012

Isles of Wonder

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There's so much been written on the London 2012 Opening Ceremony that I certainly don't feel the need to talk at length about the event. Suffice to say, I thought it was a bold and wonderful opening, celebratory while keeping its tongue at least partly in its cheek, self-deprecating and triumphant. The Bond/Queen and Bean sections were theatrical coups; the internet/music sequence had a baffling and unnecessary narrative which, thankfully, didn't detract from a fabulous celebration of Britain's achievements in music and film; the tribute to children's literature was gorgeous and the political statement justly felt; and I thought the cauldron looked terrific and the choice of the final torchbearers a great touch.

My compatriot Jem Bloomfield has written eloquently about the Shakespeare contribution - Kenneth Branagh, dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, speaking Caliban's lines from The Tempest, 'be not afeard', and I thought I'd add my tuppence worth. I'm not interested so much in where these words came from as what they were doing in Brunel's mouth at this particular moment.

Kenneth Branagh
Kenneth Branagh as Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Among all the furore over certain groups branding the ceremony too "leftie" (especially the idiotic Aidan Burley MP), I felt particularly bemused, as this section of the ceremony left a slightly sour taste in my mouth on account of its presentation of more conservative values. Was this a celebration? We watched a halcyon vision of Britain's bucolic past torn apart by industrialists, who removed the landscape in choroegraphed, machine-like movements, creating a smoking industrial landscape that forged the Olympic rings out of the ashes of the countryside. It's an oddly ambivalent moment to celebrate, and the ceremony seemed to know this. The evocation of Lord of the Rings imagery, the confusion of the Revolution and the groups it brought together, wandering lost among the smokestacks (rather like the paddy-field farmer in the cartoon introduction to Have I Got News For You), the wealthy industrialists becoming rich at the expense of the faceless masses; it was, in many ways, a nightmarish opening. I'm not quite sure what the fireworks-spewing rings at the conclusion of this sequence were meant to say, exactly - don't worry, the destruction of the countryside was worth it if we get to hold the Olympics? The wealthy have made all this possible? To my mind, it works best in the context of the entire show, where those values were thrown into contrast with the NHS sequence that so outraged Conservatives and Republicans.

What was most remarkable about Branagh's performance, to my mind, was the glimpses we got of him walking round, smoking a cigar and smirking at the Revolution he had instigated. Narratively, I suppose I would have liked to see a little more sense of this spiralling out of control, the "What have I wrought?" moment. But perhaps this was implicit enough in the lines with which he began the show. In Brunel's mouth, the words of Caliban's speech became the capitalist dream that Cheek by Jowl played with in their Russian-language production.

[A]nd then in dreaming,
The clouds, methought, would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.

It was the riches that Brunel longed for, that provided the drive and inspiration that led him, Saruman-like, to tear up his country's green spaces. Where the nature of the riches Caliban imagines are left deliciously open to interpretation, Brunel's were material. I couldn't help but be reminded of Caliban's much later line:

Let it alone, thou fool; it is but trash.

When Stephano and Trinculo are presented with riches that have appeared magically from the air/Ariel, Caliban is the one awake to their true nature. Perhaps I'm over-reading, but I can't help but feel that it's in the last line of the earlier speech that the difference between Brunel and Caliban can be seen. Caiban "cried to dream again". His instant recourse is to the imaginative world, not to an attempt to realise or own the music he has heard. It is at other points in the play that he attempts to take action, to disastrous effect. Brunel, conversely, immediately aimed to turn his dream of riches into a reality. His usurpation of the "isle of wonder" may not be the same as Prospero's, but the march of industrial capitalism at the expense of nature is, of course, a staple trope and one associated with the coloniser (see Avatar and a million better books and films).

To debate whether Brunel was 'Caliban' or 'Prospero' in this fantasy, however, is something of a red herring. The point is about appropriation, with Brunel colonising and disrupting Caliban's words just as he subsequently did to the landscape. In looking to the artificial clouds that hovered in the stadium and praying for riches to fall from them, Danny Boyle both literalised the image and rendered it a tagline for a capitalist dream. I'm not sure we were meant to celebrate this, exactly, but Branagh made it feel terrifyingly appropriate.

September 03, 2011

The Tempest (Antic Disposition) @ Middle Temple Hall

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I submitted my PhD on Wednesday after a very intense period of having my head down, during which I’ve not been looking ahead and organising theatre visits or review tickets. It was a delight, therefore, to have the chance to attend Antic Disposition’s current production of The Tempest during a quick research trip to London. The big selling point was, of course, the venue – the beautiful Middle Temple Hall, dominated by stained glass and enormous portraits of Stuart monarchs, set in beautiful surroundings.

While the programme gestured to the fact that at least one of Shakespeare’s plays was staged here, this was no original practices production in the model of Shakespeare’s Globe’s Twelfth Night, performed in Middle Temple some years ago. Antic Disposition is a young but clearly well-financed professional company, and designer John Risebero and lighting designer Howard Hudson did wonders with the space. Caskets littered the floor (arranged in a thrust), some apparently half-submerged under the boards. Subtle switches between lighting states guided the scene’s focus, particularly drawing attention to the effects of magical interventions. The whole was directed with a painterly eye for composition, most powerfully as the “men of sin” raised the lid of a casket and were illuminated by golden light from within, standing for the wonder of the banquet.

Politically and dramatically, this was an entirely conservative production. Richard Franklin’s Prospero was the kindly patriarch, Christopher Rowland’s Ariel his adoring servant, Tony Austin’s Caliban his surly labourer and Ami Sayers’s Miranda his innocent daughter. The production went out of its way to avoid ambiguity – most shockingly, Ariel’s back story and Prospero’s anger at him were omitted, denying Ariel even this one moment of mutiny. This was somewhat refreshing, considering that the play is so often heavily politicised, but I did feel the lack of a strong interpretative angle.

Rowland’s androgynous Ariel was a highlight. With red lips, long red coat and ruffed legs, he scampered about the stage and responded with childlike emotion to everything he saw, moving from simpering delight in Miranda and Ferdinand’s romance to outrage at the plot of the clowns. While he showed petulance at the idea of more labour, his love for Prospero bordered on the slavish, and Prospero freed him by kissing his hand and placing it on Ariel’s cheek. All sighs and smiles, Ariel was strongest in the songs, performed beautifully.

Caliban, by contrast, was gruff and earthy, a relatively sober and simple antagonist. There was something fundamentally sad about him, particularly in his recounting of his dream. His “I cried to dream again” was spoken in an almost sullen tone, as if even more hollow for his moment of enlightenment. In the company of Ben Benson’s Trinculo and David Pibworth’s Stephano, he became anxious and ill, beginning their second scene together by vomiting noisily into a chest. His speech of redemption was, however, passed over surprisingly quickly, the character disappearing quickly from memory. The two clowns were very decent, drawing safe laughs from business involving the swapping of coats while still wearing them and running yelping from the sounds of dogs emerging from caskets.

Miranda and Ferdinand were played as a straight romance, but with Miranda displaying frank sexuality in her appreciation of the young prince, and kissing him passionately when agreeing to be his wife. Robin Rightmyer’s Ferdinand was quietly spoken but utterly sincere. The acoustics of Middle Temple Hall were unkind to shouting or high pitches, and it took a while before I could make out Sayers’s dialogue. This was also an issue in the opening scene, where sailors pulled at ropes and shouted at each other, but this is obviously thematically justifiable there. However, Sayers was strong throughout and her wide-eyed wonder after removing a blindfold to see the assorted nobles was particularly effective.

The simplicity of the storytelling most benefitted the political storyline. Here, the route of Callum Coates’s Antonio, wearing military uniform, to his role was absolutely clear, and his manipulation of the hapless Sebastian (Alexander Jonas) even more so. The moustache-twirling Antonio was still scheming in the final scene, smiling sarcastically at Prospero and deferentially bowing to Alonso before leaving the stage with a stony face. Even better was the clarity of the “men of sin” scene – Ariel ran in with enormous harpy wings and stood atop one of the caskets while Alonso stood in awe, Sebastian wept and Antonio cowered. It reminded me of the problem that too often haunts The Tempest – the play becomes so swamped in spectacle and style that the very slight plot gets lost. This production avoided that problem with great skill.

The production’s good humour was best realised at the start of the second half, in a simple scene involving Ariel replacing the boxes that Ferdinand moved, while the latter blamed members of the audience. The joy on Ariel’s face at this simple trick matched the paternal delight shown by Prospero. While there were moments of unease, this Prospero was always entirely in control, and delivered his opening speech to Miranda and his later soliloquies in a genial tone, offering us the weight of experience in an anecdotal manner. Franklin held the stage comfortably, never challenging with his interpretation but never failing in his ability to keep the play moving.

Finally, I was torn by the music. At moments, James Burrows’s score was the production’s greatest strength. For the masque, Ariel sang from atop a casket, accompanied by the rest of the company harmonising. However, I have a huge dislike of pre-recorded intrusive scores, and despite the relative complexity of the music (beautifully, songs blended seamlessly into underscore) it had the effect of drenching the production in a synthetic wash that was too emotionally manipulative and yoked the mood of the performance too strictly. Less is very much more in this case. However, there was no denying the skill and care of the production, and its entertaining and straight reading suited the space ideally. While I would have liked to see something which grappled more strongly with the complexities of the play, this production was content to pursue – and achieve – a simple beauty.

April 30, 2011

The Tempest @ Warwick Arts Centre Cinema

The Tempest

Julie Taymor has had a rough year. She's a favourite director of mine - I love her Titus and Across the Universe, and she's borne herself pretty well through the fiasco that has been (and continues to be) Spider-Man: The Musical. It's true, too, that we need a good film of The Tempest. Derek Jarman's classic has such a specific agenda that it limits its use and relevance; the BBC version is horrifically bad and Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books is an arthouse deconstruction. So I had high hopes for this (heightened by an amazing cast) and really wanted to love it. Goodwill can only run so far though, and unfortunately I can't honestly say I found anything at all to like about this film.

The film started promisingly. It began with an elaborate sandcastle sat on the palm of a hand stretched out towards the ocean. The skies darkened, and rain began to pour, disintegrating the castle. The owner of the hand - Felicity Jones's Miranda looked, panicked, as a passing boat was caught in the storm, and the furious, chaotic scene on the boat was interspersed with shots of her running, full-tilt, along the coast to where her mother, Helen Mirren's Prospera, was holding out a staff. The destruction of the ship was cinematic and powerful, especially as Reeve Carney's Ferdinand locked himself in his cabin to pray and was then swept out by waves smashing through his windows and pulling him into the ocean.


Nothing else in the remainder of the film, sadly, lived up to this opening. The film gave an entirely conservative reading of the play, with only cosmetic differences and few interpretative decisions beyond the obvious. The changing of Prosper's gender (she was the wife of the Duke of Milan) made no difference to the character, who remained a kindly but occasionally brusque mother, a strong-willed master and a stern opponent to the conspirators. Mirren was one of the film's stronger assets, particularly in the scene of abjuration where she pulled a ring of fire around herself and grew powerful as she described her earlier feats, before allowing the flames to die as, exhausted, she offered to drown her book. She worked in a laboratory filled with mechanical equipment, mirrors and beams, and wielded visual and powerful magic throughout, behind which the character was somewhat buried. Flashbacks to a fuzzy council room in Milan confused rather than clarified her long opening story.

Her assistant was Ben Whishaw as Ariel, who first appeared staring out of a pool lovingly at his mistress. I say 'his', but this Ariel was androgynous and softly-spoken, a flitting spirit. Whishaw was excellent, touching in his voice and, especially on "were I human", cutting through the visual style with moments of emotion. However, his performance was served badly by abysmal visual effects. Whishaw was never quite localised within the shot, instead looking like a two-dimensional imposition across the picture. While the producers aimed for spectacle - a fiery giant tossing the ship between his hands in a flashback; a face peering out of trees and ponds; a screaming harpy accompanied by thousands of birds (this was genuinely terrifyhing); or the flame-faced courser of hounds - the picture of Ariel never quite fitted the action or interacted with it genuinely, and the over-use of blended figures for movement and multiple copies of the same actor looked cheap and tacky.

Helen Mirren as Prospera

Djimon Hounsou was an entirely traditional Caliban, the decorated black man wearing loincloth and a thick African accent (which was, for much of the film, unfortunately unintelligible). Hounsou brought a dignity to the character in the early scenes which was abandoned entirely by the time of his union with the clowns; although a strong climax saw Prospera and Caliban face off at each other silently across a pond before he quietly turned his back and left her cell. The interpretation hedged its bets and left Caliban rather superfluous, neither a heroic victim nor a savage villain but merely someone who lived on the island and occasionally interacted with the plot.

Better were Alfred Molina and Russell Brand as Stephano and Trinculo. Brand started poorly, with clowning and audience banter that would have worked well in an intimate stage setting but, in the massive empty space of the desolate volcanic island, sounded hollow and forced. Molina's early appearances, stumbling through a canyon and murmuring to himself as he sipped at his bottle, were far more suited to the format. The two men worked well together, and Brand's ad-libbing was particularly welcome in a very boring film, but the insertion of urination jokes and extended cross-dressing scenes were obviously extra-textual.

The Tempest poster

The courtiers were all fine, but their scenes of walking through trees and rocky cliffs were exceptionally dull. Their madness following the spectacular harpy scene was well played, however, with David Strathairn's Alonso stumbling lost and Sebastian and Antonio swinging their swords desperately at invisible birds. Tom Conti was a very strong Gonzalo, too, pacing mournfully after the distracted nobles and weeping. The two young lovers were excruciatingly wet, exchanging soppy looks and doing little more than looking pretty, even in Ferdinand's interpolated song of "O Mistress Mine" to his new wife. In place of the masque, Prospera showed them a bizarre planetarium-style spectacle of sexual positions being enacted among the stars, which she interrupted quietly herself.

The visual effects, as already mentioned, were variable, and too heavily relied upon. The best were the flaming dogs who pursued Trinculo, Stephano and Caliban, but even these didn't quite occupy the physical space in which they were running. The rest of the chaos was shown through crazy camera angles, dissolves and fast edits which felt gimmicky rather than organic to the action. The music throughout, too, was disconcertingly eclectic - wonderful rock beats came in now and again to augment the orchestral score, but at times which seemed unsuited to the events and often competing with the text. The textual editing was fine and relatively clear, but with occasional "Why?!" moments such as the Americanism of Prospera's line "We will go visit with Caliban", which not only sounded odd in an English accent but made the line unmetrical.

This film will endure as the most straightforward and accessible version of The Tempest yet committed to film, and I won't deny that it's a watchable version. However, it offered little new to the play other than style, and I struggled to see a good reason for its existence. There were some lovely images towards the end - Prospera's glass staff smashing against the rocks, and the closing credits which saw books (unseen for the rest of the film) sinking through the waves while a voice sang the Epilogue in a tuneless style - but these couldn't make up for such a tired film. Here's hoping for better things with Coriolanus.

March 18, 2011

The Tempest (Little Angel Theatre/RSC) @ The Swan Theatre

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What a treat to be back in the Swan. I haven't been inside my favourite Stratford theatre since The Penelopiad back in 2007, and it's wonderful to see it looking (on the inside, at any rate) exactly as it did before the closure, albeit with more comfortable seats. The first full production in there will be Cardenio, but the space has been warming up with some smaller shows including this, a new collaboration between the RSC and the Little Angel Theatre on The Tempest.

This production had a much more substantial human element than the last Little Angel take on Shakespeare, the excellent Venus and Adonis. Here, all of the human characters were played by costumed humans (although Miranda did carry a small doll version of herself) in a relatively straight, though highly edited, version aimed at children. Against a backdrop of curved rocks (arranged as if the inverted skeleton of some enormous sea beast), the cast wore traditional period dress evoking received images of the characters: David Fielder's Prospero wore flowing robes and a full beard; the courtiers rich, red robes and headwear; the clowns doublet and hose.

The text was heavily cut for its young audience, with sections of new verse and songs added to explicate plot elements more clearly. This had the additional effect of shifting the emphasis of the play towards simpler and more conservative elements, such as the Miranda/Ferdinand romance. In a lovely scene, the two carried logs jointly, danced and flirted innocently, while the rest of the cast sat at the back of the stage and sang a gently mocking love song ("Is it love?" "Could be" "Possibly" "Might well be" "It isn't entirely unlikely" etc.). This sweet sequence exaggerated the centrality of the love plot in relation to the other subplots, which were both heavily cut, and provided the main source of investment. Fielder's Prospero wept openly as he finally gifted Ferdinand his daughter.

The appeal towards traditional settings and conservative priorities is, unfortunately, endemic of children's theatre. In striving for accessibility, inevitably and understandably, productions reach back towards received images of a play, banking on a universal base level of recognisability. While the appeal is obvious, making use of stock types and childrens' burgeoning awareness, it can have the unfortunate consequence of retaining outmoded values. I'm thinking in particular of this production's Caliban, a man-sized puppet voiced by Jonathan Dixon who was a cross between an ape and a turtle, and spoke slowly and simply. The image of Caliban as the mentally-deficient man-monkey throwback, in my view, hits too closely towards the old racial stereotyping that used to inform Calibans, and it was a disappointment to see this on the RSC stage. Ariel, meanwhile, was a green pixie, a couple of feet high, who was carried around the stage in the act of flight, aiming for the ephemerality and lightness of the spirit.

The puppet performers carried their characters about the stage, pushing the bodies forward to act the words which were spoken openly by the handler. This was especially effective in the case of Caliban, whose sheer size and physicality allowed him to interact fully with the other characters, particularly as he and Stephano sat down next to each other and Caliban put his arms conspiratorially around his new king. Caliban was primarily comic, with a puppyish eagerness to please and a habit of growling deeply when resentful. While he was prodigiously strong (repeatedly flattening Stephano with thumps to his back), this monster was ultimately fearful and pathetic, and easily cowed.

The remainder of the puppet content was used for magical spectacle, aside from the seagulls that gently flew round the stage at the play's beginning and end. An unfurling cloth banner allowed for two instances of shadow play - one with wire models of Ferdinand and Miranda in place of the masque scene, and one to reveal them in silhouette playing chess in the cave. The former of these was particularly effective, beginning with Prospero opening a book with reflective pages, which he directed to throw patterns against the cloth behind which the silhouettes slowly appeared. Ferdinand and Miranda approached their doppelgangers in awe and slowly began performing the same dance, coming closer to kiss. Prospero's interruption of this gentle sequence was especially jarring.

The puppets were also used horrifically. Three large covered platters were placed in corners of the stage for the "men of sin", which they cautiously raised. From beneath emerged three monstrously coloured and huge fish, which writhed and threatened as Ariel's voice boomed across the stage, in a genuinely scary sequence accompanied by thunder and lightning. Less scary, but amusingly effective, were the two dresses lowered from the ceiling for Trinculo and Stephano to marvel at. The two danced with their new "women" until the dresses took on lives of their own, hovering above Stephano and knocking him to his back in what he took to be a sexual game. Suddenly, the performers inverted the dresses, and the enormous heads of rabid dogs emerged, barking and snapping at the terrified clowns.

Brett Brown's Stephano was the highlight among the performers, a heavy-drinking, swaggering figure who peed into buckets, vomitted into audience laps and wandered through the audience winking and snatching programmes. He was accompanied by the hard-working Ruth Calkin who took on the bulk of the singing as well as playing Trinculo and Gonzalo, and the joking relationship with the foolish Caliban acted to break up the more serious action. The lords were more conventional, acting largely to keep the plot ticking along but making little greater impact, even though Christopher Staines did some nice work as a smug Antonio.

It was the relationship between Prospero and Anneika Rose's Miranda that was most effective. Rose played Miranda as a wide-eyed innocent, again in line with traditional readings, but treated her father with a mixture of reverence and hurt confusion. Fielder, meanwhile, played Prospero with surprising range, including an avuncular jocularity towards Ferdinand and tender affection for Ariel. which saw him jokingly shake his head at the question "Do you love me, master?" before smiling and replying "Dearly". Yet there was an edge to the character too. The "We are such things as dreams are made on" speech was delivered in a tone of deep sarcasm and anger, to the confusion of his daughter and son-in-law; and at other times a bitterness emerged from the character. Upon breaking his staff across his knee, a visible weight was lifted from him, and he straightened up, smiling, before running in joy from the island. Ariel grew wings and began flying among the seagulls, while the abashed Caliban returned to the stage and grunted in pleasure as one of the gulls nestled on his head. The lights faded on a simple, conventional and lovely version of the play that showcased the beautiful art of the Little Angel Theatre. It may have been behind its time as a reading, but played to purpose effectively.

March 03, 2011

The Tempest (Cheek by Jowl/Chekhov International Drama Festival) @ Warwick Arts Centre

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The Russians are back. Cheek by Jowl's Russian wing have previously brought us wonderful versions of Twelfth Night, Three Sisters and Boris Gudonov, and a return to Shakespeare was extremely welcome. It's a pleasure to report that, while the English ensemble's Macbeth (still touring) was quite the disappointment, the Russians once again proved that there's plenty of fresh insight to be gleaned from the old plays.

Cheek by Jowl's recent tendency has been towards greater levels of deconstruction, with actors increasingly addressing the audience directly, performing actions without contact and chopping up the dialogue. The Tempest, by contrast, saw actors once more performing scenes together in practical blocking (I shy away from saying "realistic"), building relationships and rhythms that, for the most part, rendered the surtitles superfluous. This was as clear a production of the play as one could hope for, while also making innovative decisions.

Rather than adopt the (post)colonial narrative that almost inevitably underpins modern productions of the play, Declan Donnellan instead drew on Russian history to locate the play at the collision between communism and capitalism. Igor Yasulovich's Prospero was first and foremost an old man, in shirt sleeves and braces, who frequently resorted to mild violence and barely potent bluster rather than magic. Played as a Russian patriarch, then, his rule on the island was read as his attempts to control and educate his extended 'family', moulding them into behaviours that went against their basic nature. His tenure on the island represented his attempts to form a society according to his own (outdated) ideology, the negative practical application of the utopia imagined by a lively, jovial Gonzalo (Alexander Lenkov) earlier in the play.

The struggle to rule was evident from the beginning in his relationship with Anya Khalilulina's Miranda. This Miranda, despite a veneer of civilisation, was near-feral. Often on all fours, arching her back and leaning suspiciously towards new arrivals, she alternated between violence (biting Ferdinand on the leg, punching her father hard) and timidity (hiding behind her father's legs). Prospero in turn used a mixture of tough love (striking her down as she pummelled him) and touching concern - after putting her to sleep, he knelt over her for a long time, stroking her hair and gazing at her fondly. His attempts to civilise this wild creature included a long sequence washing her as she struggled, taking care to get behind the ears and the back of the neck. Later, she appeared uncomfortable in a simple wedding dress, throwing her bouquet petulantly to the ground. Her resistance to his attempts to force her into conservative modes of behaviour was a constant.

Fascinatingly, isolation from men had not taught this Miranda innocence, in the sense of demure or coy reticence. Rather, and more interestingly, it meant that she had not learnt reservation. On meeting Yan Ilves's Ferdinand she could not restrain herself from touching him - slapping, nuzzling, sniffing, she drew him into her own physicality. This recently liberated Ferdinand, in a shocking moment of what can only be described as colonial arrogance, began to loosen his trousers, pinning her down in preparation to rape her, to the watching Prospero's horror and to the unwitting Miranda's joyful laughter. Prospero's insertion of himself between them was greeted with disappointment by both, and they continued to try to touch one another until he was frozen by Ariel. Similarly, as Caliban entered for his first appearance, Miranda casually took her shirt off as a prelude to washing, to Prospero's horror as he tried to re-cover her. His attempts to civilise her became a kind of constraint.

Prospero's didacticism reached its apogee in the masque sequence, refigured as reminiscent of communist propaganda. Against the bare white back wall, black and white footage of happy farm workers was shown, and the three "goddesses" emerged from doors as buxom masked country girls, with sheathes of corn and bushels of apples. The goddesses sang their blessings, then gave way to a dancing chorus of sickle-carrying male farmhands, among whom Miranda and Ferdinand danced happily to the sounds of roaring crowds. Then, as if an afterthought, Prospero murmured "Stop". He then shouted it more loudly. The music suddenly cut out, the dancers stopped and everyone looked at him in bemusement. He shouted it again, and the stage lights and house lights snapped on, and a stagehand appeared with a questioning shrug, as the actors looked out at the audience. Prospero had stopped both the masque and the play itself, bringing everything to a crashing halt; both politics and the artifice of performance itself undercut in a moment of stark realisation. Prospero's subsequent soliloquy, delivered as the actor to the audience, was one of the production's most powerful moments, an exchange of honesty and appeal to human sensibility that transcended the play's politics and aesthetic. While this Prospero was reasonably unsympathetic, in this speech the actor forged a genuine connection with his auditors.

While the interruption of the communist propaganda was the clearest statement of political intent, exposing the idealised society as nothing more than a facade, a similar interest in the integration of the worker characterised much of the rest of the production. Alexander Feklistov's Caliban was a worker rather than a monster, a slow and burly man in overalls who grumbled as he worked. In a production where Ferdinand was introduced as a rapist, Caliban's tender relationship with Miranda was surprisingly sweet - the two joked and flirted, and she protested loudly at her father's offstage whipping of him. The analogue between his in-grown drudgery and Prospero's slow breaking of Ferdinand was pointed up by the Cheek by Jowl trick of juxtaposing the end of one scene with the beginning of the next, allowing the drunken and newly liberated Caliban to dance around Ferdinand as he carried his burden on his back. We saw in Ferdinand what had happened to Caliban; immediately prior to the wedding, Prospero struck the exhausted prince to the floor; then, while he lay there sobbing, the older man comforted him, brought in Miranda, then stripped, washed and dresed him, remaking the prince in his own image.

With Caliban this had failed, however, and instead the worker began making men in his own image. Hidden under a cloak thrown down from a raised platform by Ariel, Caliban was stumbled upon by the comically effeminate Ilya Ilin as Trinculo (sobbing as he was followed around by Ariel, who continually emptied a watering can over his head and threw unsuspected buckets of water at him) and the burly Sergey Koleshnya as Stephano. The business of two men hiding under the gaberdine was replaced by the two men sitting on top of the mound, from which a hand periodically emerged to steal a shot of vodka. The drunken Caliban became a revolutionary, opening his mouth for more alcohol and leading the comedians in song. Later, he stripped to the waist and daubed himself with warpaint, before initiating Stephano in the same way, turning the two men into visual twins. This was undone, however, in an inversion of the cultural transaction. Upon arriving in Prospero's cell, a projection showed a lush boutique shop, and fine clothes, watches, mobile phones and accessories were wheeled in. The deeply materialist Trinculo went berserk for the beautiful clothes, while Stephano fully indulged himself also. In an hysterical scene, they discovered a credit card and machine with unlimited funds, which both men played with (Trinculo experiencing an orgasm as the receipt went through). They then introduced Caliban to the machine, inducting him into the joys of capitalism, at which point Prospero entered with his baying hounds.

Prospero's power was realised by Ariel (Andrey Kuzichev), who wore black shirt and trousers and was accompanied for much of the production by four doppelgangers, who played music and echoed his lines. Ariel was a calm, emotionless presence, unshowy in his power (apart from one fantastic image where he opened a door to reveal Ferdinand awash in blue light, upside down and slowly spinning, as if completely submerged in water) and attentive to his master. The early power relations between Prospero and him seemed initially biased in favour of Ariel, who needed to be called several times before arriving, but then Ariel's anguish and pain as Prospero reminded him of Sycorax were manifested in an out of control spin and clutching of the head. There was a sense of humour to many of Ariel's interventions. He played the log(s) that Ferdinand carried, keeping himself ramrod straight as the prince picked him up and carried him across the stage, before sneakily standing up and walking back to his original position while Ferdinand looked the other way, to the latter's increased exasperation. Eventually, Miranda helped him roll Ariel across the stage, resisting the spirit's attempts to change the direction of his roll. At other times, the five Ariels merely wandered about the stage, pouring water for thirsty lords and playing for Caliban. The "men of sin" speech saw three of them appear as copies of Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian on a high platform, appearing above a projection of a court scene.

The lords themselves, as is usual for a production, were less spectacular, but all extremely well performed. Alonso (Mikhail Zhigalov) and Sebastian (Pavel Kuzmin) had an already troubled relationship in which Alonso repeatedly threated to hit his nervous younger brother, who was a blameful coward (as he handled the knife to kill Gonzalo, he whimpered pathetically). Evgeny Samarin's Antonio, meanwhile, was a smoking discontent, happy to sit upstage and await his moments, while Alexander Lenkov's Gonzalo was an unusually vibrant and entertaining figure, strong and hearty.

The play's conclusion brought everything together in fitting manner, with the tension between Prospero and Antonio particularly emphasised in a snarl of disapproval from the new Duke of Milan. Most powerful, however, were the hints of long-term damage caused by Prospero's time on the island. Lining up to leave via a back door, the characters waved or shrugged one by one before disappearing, including Miranda. However, after the last of the lords had left, Caliban howled. Miranda ran back in, crying and wailing, and threw herself into Caliban's arms. Ferdinand chased her back in, and husband and father together tore the two apart, and Miranda was carried off flailing and protesting. Less violently, but more movingly, Ariel accepted his freedom quietly; then, after Prospero left with his suitcase, he looked about in some confusion. Caliban was sat on the floor, rocking gently; Ariel sat next to him, and put his hand on his head. This touching image implied yet again the level of damage caused by Prospero's attempts to control his "subjects" - Miranda was forced away to a new life against her will, while Caliban and Ariel were lost without their orders, although Ariel's gesture of compassion sounded a note of hope. Prospero re-entered for his epilogue, putting a hand on Ariel's shoulder, and the rest of the cast followed suit, Miranda sitting at his feet in an evocation of the family photograph. It was a simple suggestion of healing to come, a positive grace note at the end of a powerful and game-changing production.

October 06, 2010

Taymor's Tempest

Well, if you're going to do Shakespeare on film, you might as well make it spectacular!

Good use of Sigur Ros too!

November 02, 2009

A Tempest (Krazy Kat Theatre) @ Warwick Arts Centre Studio

There's a bit of a gap in Shakespearean performance criticism. Despite the quality and inventiveness of theatre for children all around the country, it falls beneath the notice of most reviewers, with the implication that it is considered not to be of substantial intellectual or creative merit. This is an enormous shame, as a viewing of Krazy Kat Theatre's A Tempest emphatically proved.

Caroline Parker's production, in collaboration with Nottingam Playhouse's education department, was specifically designed for 8-11 year olds and particularly for those children who are deaf or hard of hearing. With a tagline of "Such signs as dreams are made on...", A Tempest incorporated sign language into the action, resulting in a production which was strikingly visually stylised as performers simultaneously spoke and signed to one another in a mesmerising symphony of movement and words.

Nick Wood's adaptation streamlined the play, focussing on the fundamentals of plot rather than character development. Thus, the scenes of the courtiers were stripped down to Antonio and Sebastian's agreement to kill Alonso, followed immediately by the appearance of the banquet and Ariel. The masque and mariners were cut, and the remainder of the scenes trimmed down to their essentials, except in the case of the Caliban/Trinculo/Stephano scenes, where much of the physical comedy was retained. The result was to create a Tempest that found coherence in a series of almost dreamlike fragments, where action and images blended seamlessly into each other.

I'm not sure how easily a young audience would have followed, say, Prospero's back-story or the political motivations of the plotters, but the highly visual and magically evocative approach rendered the words largely superfluous. Antonio and Sebastian were created through the donning of commedia dell'arte evil masks; Trinculo and Stephano lurched comically about the stage; and Alonso wore a crowned mask that set him apart as king. The stories were linked by Ariel, a blue-skinned and pointy-eared puppet in Eastern robes who was maneuvered by the actors, moving freely around the small circular stage to establish that the same magic bound the disparate groups of characters. This sober, and slightly scary-looking, puppet emphasised the severity of the magic; this was no carefree paradise, but a place of serious works, seriously undertaken by an agent of real magic.

A succession of simply-created but very effective images introduced the action; first Kinny Gardner's Prospero was robed and given his staff and book, then the book was opened to reveal a blue cloth that expanded out to cover the stage, rippling and billowing as the noises of a storm built up. Darren Cheek's Miranda appeared amid the ocean, holding a small paper boat which she desperately tried to keep afloat, before it was snatched from her by the other actors, thrown from hand to hand as she pleaded with Prospero for their safe-keeping. In response he grabbed the boat, then dunked it in a bucket of water, presenting the soggy mess to his dismayed daughter.

The play's main focus stayed with Miranda and Jim Fish's Ferdinand, as the two met and courted under Prospero's watchful eye. There was plenty of humour to be found in these scenes: Ferdinand's attempt to draw his sword resulted in him producing a bunch of flowers, and his amazement turned to pleasure as he presented them to Miranda. His arduous lugging of logs, too, was rendered comic as Miranda picked up several under a single arm. However, the humour gave way to surprising moments of tenderness as the two young lovers were finally allowed to touch. Their subsequent appearance playing chess behind a picture frame saw the two already good-naturedly laughing as they played and cheated at the game.

The final scene introduced an interesting reading of the text, bringing on stage Prospero, Miranda, Ferdinand and Tinca Leahy's Alonso, with the other nobles represented by their masks laid on the stage floor. This staging greatly increased Alonso's presence and status in the final scenes, emphasised by Prospero kneeling before the King as he asked - here, asked - for his dukedom, to be graciously granted the honour. Prospero's revelation of the king's lost son therefore became the subject's favour to his sovereign. More than anyone else, I was reminded of Rosalind, with the ending engineered by a character of slightly lower rank for the benefit of his superior. This re-establishment of the monarch's superiority, and Prospero's deliberate choice to reconcile himself to the hierachy of Naples and Milan, was effective and fitted well with Prospero's expressed desire to abjure his magic and return home.

Ariel shrunk as the production went on, from a child-sized puppet to a hand-sized puppet, and finally to a bundle of shiny ribbons, which Prospero caressed fondly as he said his goodbyes. In a rather startling moment, he then threw the ribbons to the floor, only for them to bounce high and off the stage as Ariel returned to the ether. The puppet was nicely countered by Fish's Caliban, who emerged from a chest with clawed hands and fanged teeth, which Prospero tuttingly told him to remove before continuing with the scene. Fish's growling island-monster was understandably and tactfully simplified, allowing him to act as the comic villain before Prospero's thwarting of the mission, at which he underwent a change of heart and sought for grace. He was thus raised above the bumbling Stephano and Trinculo by his ability to recognise true authority and plead for pardon, achieving a state of grace denied the two servants.

At an hour long, with only four actors and a simple approach designed to appeal to children, it is perhaps understandable that this kind of children's theatre slips beneath the notice of performance critics. This is, after all, 'A' Tempest rather than 'The' Tempest. However, it is a shame; Krazy Kat produced an interesting and entertainingly-performed reading of the play that appealed to its target audience and displayed far more wit and invention than a good many 'adult' productions. I would have loved to have seen a full house of schoolchildren enjoying this, as it seemed to me to be the ideal introduction to Shakespeare: accessible without compromise, and entertaining without condescension.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.