Direct And To The Point: The Tempest

This post is inspired by the recent production of The Tempest, produced by The New York Shakespeare Festival and directed by Michael Greif. My previous experience with The Tempest include seeing other full productions once or twice before and playing Miranda in a production which I am hard pressed to remember. Like any Shakespearean play, the it has its warts and its gems.

My specific thoughts on it are as follows:

– Sorting Out The Storm

The play opens on a boat that’s in the middle of being shipwrecked by a storm. Understandably, it’s a fairly chaotic moment. And it involves a large group of people. Since the dialogue isn’t loaded down with a whole lot of exposition, I would want to use this scene to distinguish the relationships between the 4 main groups of people who come from the boat. They are:

  • The Sailors: The Captain and Crew of the boat. They want the king and all his entourage to out of the way and stay safely below deck.
  • The Good Guys: Alonso (the King), Ferdinand (the Prince) and Gonzalo (the Courtier). These guys are kind of just hanging out trying to not die in the storm. Ferdinand does not technically appear in scene (he has no lines), but given that we don’t otherwise see him with him father until the end of the play, this is the one point where we could visually establish their relationship.
  • The Bad Guys: Antonio (the Duke) and Sebastian (the King’s Brother). These guys are hotheads. They’re quick to berate the crew and think they are the ones who should be calling all the shots.
  • The Fools: Stephano and Trinculo. These clowns don’t have any lines in the first scene, but I think it would be good to see them, so that we can establish visually that they were on the boat. Plus their first scene doesn’t come up until fairly late in the play. (In my ideal world, I would also have these two do a quick interstitial cross, after we’ve established that the men from the boat are wandering around the island but before their first scene, just to establish that they are also alive and wandering the island.) These guys largely live to get drunk and secure the best station in life that they can with the least amount of energy.

If we can establish these groups either through stage pictures or by costuming (or both), that lays a great foundation for what’s coming up.

Ship at Sea– Miranda/Prospero Relationship

There’s something wonderfully teenage about the relationship Miranda has with her father. This relationship strikes me as one of the most contemporary feeling parent/child relationships in Shakespeare. Many of the others seem to have a formal distance between parent and child, but this one seems much closer. There is a sense of banter. It feels like Miranda has been raised to consider her father as an equal and he, for his part, largely enjoys being able to converse with her now that she is becoming an adult (although, he is sometimes annoyed with her precociousness). In their first scene, it’s important for Prospero to drive the scene. If he doesn’t keep speaking (or if what he’s saying isn’t significant enough to Miranda) she should (given the context of the scene) interrupt him – initially in an effort to save the ship she thinks is sinking and then to find out more about this astonishing secret past that he reveals. (I think it’s also helpful if in his telling of this backstory, if Prospero can highlight with team we’re supposed to root for – Milan or Naples. Because to me, those cities are interchangeable as I’m sitting there listening to the play. But they are most definitely NOT interchangeable to Prospero (or any of the people who were on the boat), and that’s information worth knowing.)

– That Scene with Prospero, Miranda and Caliban

Why, for the love of God, does Prospero bring Miranda with him when he goes to see Caliban, the beast-man who tried to rape her?!? This production at one point even had Prospero pushing Miranda toward Caliban – a choice which I still cannot fathom. She doesn’t have any lines while Caliban is present. It almost seems like she’s there in the scene with Caliban just to have her on stage when Ferdinand enters a few moments later. Regardless, I think we have to see Prospero protecting her from Caliban. Otherwise, Prospero wins the award for worst dad ever. Also, it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary for Prospero and Miranda to go see Caliban together. It seems like this is how things typically unfold. I suppose if Caliban is being made to fetch their wood and build their fire, he would be going to their dwelling, at some point, to do so. And in that case, it’s better for Miranda to be away from there and safely with her father. But I don’t think that reasoning is implicit in the text and I’m not sure if there’s a way to trigger it non-verbally. Maybe if there’s a way to see him doing the labor at their dwelling? (This production had a prison like cell that Caliban emerged from, which made sense to me. It seems to me that one would keep Caliban around (rather than kill him) only if his value outweighs his danger. Only if he’s able to do major physical labor that you are unable to do. However, that creates the need to be able to restrain him from being able to harm Miranda or restrain Miranda from wandering the island by herself so that she doesn’t encounter him alone. Prospero doing a bit of both seems likely.) I don’t know. It always strikes me as really weird scene.

– Prospero

It’s easy for Prospero to seem like an ass. He put the country in his brother’s control while he was off studying magic. Then he doesn’t like that by the time he gets back all the supporting officials have become loyal to his brother. Perhaps taking a magic hiatus is not a crime worthy of exile, but it’s also not the best way to handle your divine responsibilities. He continues to renege on his promise to release Ariel, despite Ariel doing everything he says. In order for me to root for Prospero to be restored to his throne, I would like to see some kind of recognition of his failings, like “this was partly my fault for studying magic instead of ruling my country.” “Ariel, I know I said you could go, but I still need you so I’m going to have to keep you locked up for a bit longer.” I know these aren’t in the text, but I think they could be implied in the delivery. He also enslaves Caliban. He “enslaves” Ferdinand (who is presumably treated better than Caliban, but is charged with doing exactly the same labor). In light of these not so noble actions, I think it’s important to look for ways in which he can be likeable because ultimately we want to root for him to regain his throne. We want to believe that he’s a competent ruler. (I also think it’s worth noting that Prospero need not be aged to the point of having white hair. By the timeline laid out Miranda is supposed to be 15. Even if we age her up to her 20s, Prospero could easily be only in his 40s. Indeed, Sam Waterston played this same role at The Public years ago. I mention this because I tend see the part played by men who appear to be in their 60s.)

– Caliban

Caliban is incredibly articulate for someone who’s speaking in a second language – the bulk of his lines are even in verse. This production tried to give him some kind of speech impediment, as a means of conveying his brutish, I’m-part-animal quality – as though speaking the language were still difficult for him. But we have to remember it’s been 12 years since Miranda and Prospero landed on the island. Conservatively, Caliban’s been speaking this language, and only this language unless he speaks to the other animals on the island, for the past 10 years. Even if he has some kind of accent (or speech impediment), finding the words (because of a language barrier) should not come in to play. I think his beast-ness should instead come from some kind of huge physical presence. I would love for him to come across as something like Wolverine or the Incredible Hulk – a ridiculously strong, basically human form with wild emotions who’s super useful for certain things but difficult to control. Is Lebron James available? Because he would be about the right size to make everyone else seem puny.

– The Island

I would love for the island itself to come across as beautiful, but crazy dangerous – like the rainforest where many of the plants and critters are gorgeous, but potentially deadly. Not sure how you convey that. Perhaps there could be some staging with Miranda and Ferdinand where you see her stopping him from touching some of the wild life? Where you see her indicating “eat this, not that” or “don’t touch those”. Especially, since you have the lines where Caliban talks about how he taught Miranda and Prospero how to survive on the island. It would stand to reason that Ferdinand would also need to be taught some survival basics about the terrain.

– Magic Rules

Wherever there is magic, there are rules for magic. It’s important to clarify at least for the cast, if not also for the audience, what the rules are because rules help us understand how the game is being played. Prospero seems to be able to exercise physical control over the bodies of others in his immediate vicinity – plaguing Caliban with cramps, freezing Ferdinand’s arm as he reaches for his sword, making Miranda instantly fall asleep – but lacks the ability to control the sea and the winds. (Presumably, since this is what he makes Ariel do and why he seems to be keeping Ariel prisoner). One of the things I appreciated in this production was a representation of Ariel causing the storm. This production utilized an army of spirits under Ariel’s command, which I liked. But I would I have liked to see a more tangible communication between him and his legions or more of a recognition that he was directing them to do what they were doing.¬†(The pronoun “he” will be used for this post, since this production chose to cast this role as male.)¬†Although, Ariel having a whole troupe of spirits does make me wonder why he can’t/doesn’t utilize that against Prospero. It makes me want a clearer understanding of what exactly Prospero’s hold over Ariel is. At the end of the play we have Prospero breaking his staff (and thereby giving up his magic powers). It’s possible to tie this to Ariel’s freedom, but this is only satisfying if we can establish a more direct link with this object being the thing that keeps Ariel prisoner throughout the play. (Writing this I’m reminded of a story that was on The Jim Henson Hour called The Heartless Giant. Basically the Giant is unkillable because his heart is hidden in a vault somewhere far away…until someone tracks the heart down and crushes it. Perhaps this kind of mythology could be established for Ariel and Prospero – where Prospero physically holds an aspect of Ariel captive, so that Ariel’s form can roam around the island but never leave until what Prospero has is relinquished. I’ll grant that this could be tricky to establish, but it’s interesting to me.) Also, magic is not splendor, glitz or glamor. Magic is something we cannot explain.

– What Turns Prospero’s Heart?

Prospero spends the bulk of the play seeking revenge on his brother and then when they are finally face to face he’s like “it’s cool, I forgive you.” Which begs the question, why does Prospero have this sudden change of heart? This production had a fun moment, where Miranda, in her delight and wonder at seeing a whole crowd of people on the island, unknowingly embraces her uncle – the one person her father would have most strongly objected to her hugging had he been able to stop her in time. While I didn’t see them utilize this moment in this way, I think it could be shaped as the trigger for his change of heart.

– That Wedding

I’ve always found the wedding to be incredibly dull. I would love to see it really feel like the show erupts into celebration when the goddesses arrive. There is nothing that advances the plot in the lines that the Goddesses have. Why not turn that into some great gospel number…maybe reminiscent of the goddesses from Disney’s Hercules? Also, Miranda says she’s never seen another woman’s face (and she’s soon about to be wowed by the miracle of humans when she sees her uncle and the other men from the ship), so perhaps it’s impactful to not see these goddesses as fancy humans? Perhaps they appear as some kind of creature? Or perhaps some element of nature (maybe in puppet form)? Or maybe even as shadows?

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Post them below. The more the merrier.