Thursday, April 4, 2013

Producing the Tempest, and Prospero's Gift

Ralph Fiennes as Prospero (2011)
The expression “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” does not apply to productions of Shakespeare plays, and perhaps least of all to The Tempest.  There's a feast of characters, different sorts of action and themes, with drama, romantic and physical comedy, music and magic. But it's also his shortest play, with these rarities: the classic unities of action in one play on one day, and with the modern approach of starting when events have come to a head. (Playwright Arthur Miller used to call it "when the chickens come home to roost.")  Some experts even call it an experimental play.

(The unity of time and action, it must be said, comes at the price of Prospero's long recounting of the past to Miranda.  During it he chides her several times to pay attention, but he might be even more anxious about the audience's attentiveness.)

 The spectacles present each new production with creative and technical challenges. How do you stage the storm and shipwreck that starts the play? The displays of magic? The non-human characters? Then there are the mysteries of motivations and meaning that require decisions, which themselves ensure that each production will be different.

In creating the play, Shakespeare undoubtedly did what he usually did--he kept in mind the actors his company had for the various parts, and the place where it would be performed.  The Tempest was first done in an indoor theatre, which allowed for candlelight to help create magical effects.  A ceiling meant that Ariel might fly down on a rope or wire (which Libby Appel did so effectively in the outdoor theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in her final production as artistic director.)

At the same time, Shakespeare knew the show would probably move to the outdoor Globe, and so had to be adaptable.  Much of the magic in the play is accomplished through music--there are more songs in it than in most Shakespeare plays--and this is a feature that an outdoor theatre can even enhance.

So every production that follows must keep in mind the capabilities of the specific theatre: space, lighting, rigging, etc.  This all influences the interpretation and its expression.
Helen Mirren as Prospera in the 2010 Julie
Taymor feature film

The North Coast Rep production uses an earthy brown set with a central obelisk, and faux rocks etc. spattered with mathematical/magical symbols (that later play a more conspicuous part.)  This is an early decision for The Tempest--do you go brown or green?  Green suggests an island paradise, but brown suggests something more earthbound and at times bleak.  Or you can do both brown and green and add gray/black, as the 2010 Julie Taymor film does,with scenes shot on the volcanic rocks in the Hawaiian islands (though it is similar to Taymor's minimalist black gravel set for her first theatrical version.)  This permits the debate among the nobles as to whether the island is green or "tawny" to be a draw.

The Tempest more than most plays presents a rich variety of ways to structure a production. For example, there is time. “Tempest” comes from a Latin word that means storm but also time, as in tempus fugit, or musical time and rhythm: tempo. Prospero has a plan, and his magic is likely mathematical and astrological in part, so every act has its proper time, and the day has a definite tempo. Making time and the passage of time an overt and visible theme—with strange looking time pieces, etc.-- is a way of structuring the production. Especially for modern audiences, who are used to the “ticking clock” structure for literary, film and TV thrillers.
Christopher Plummer as Prospero (2012)

Another way (perhaps commensurate with the above) is to emphasize the alchemical connection.  According to interpretations that go back to Christian mystics but are more associated with Jung and post-Jungians like James Hillman and Thomas Moore, alchemists were not so much searching for a way to create gold, but exploring the secrets of the soul.  For these interpreters, the soul is the harmonizing function among body and spirit, mind and emotion.  The Tempest sets up these factors, as Ariel represents spirit and Caliban the body or the physical.  Prospero's magic is in harmonizing them, and his success is: Miranda, the wonder child, and her marriage.  The  word "soul" I believe appears in this play only twice, in the conversation between Miranda and Ferdinand.  In this way, Prospero's gift to Miranda is not only a safe and happy future, but the makings of her soul.

No comments: