Burning Prospero’s book

The Indian Tempest, The Globe, 3 August 2013

The Footsbarn theatre company brought their travelling production to the Globe and fitted its tent, dedicated lighting and architectural features onto the stage and in the yard.

A circular sheet occupied the centre of the main stage which was initially shrouded by white sheets hooked onto large sticks placed in holders. A spiral walkway led up to a platform stage right, while in the yard stood a large iron cart with ramps at either end.

Sheets were draped across the tiring house to enable silhouette effects at key moments.

The uncompromising way that the production inserted itself into the Globe space hinted at the distinctness of its other features. This was a production that asserted its uniqueness before it began.

The storm took place behind the white sheets draped around the front of the centre circle (1.1). Drumming and music was accompanied by the shouting of the ship’s company until the sheets were taken down to reveal Ferdinand (Haris ‘Haka’ Resic) reaching out and crying “Father!” as he was pulled away by Ariel (Gopalakrishnan Kundamkumarath) towards the stage left steps. The other occupants of the ship disappeared into the tiring house.

Miranda (Rosanna Goodall) crouched on the cart to address Prospero (Reghoothaman Domodaran Pillai) with her worries about the ship (1.2). She crouched like a coiled spring with an alert look. She brought an energy to her observations as if poised to help rather than meekly accepting events from a position of powerlessness.

Prospero’s long white hair matched his white robe. After assuring Miranda that no one had been harmed in the storm, he set about explaining how they had come to be on the island.

As he did so, another Prospero wearing a mask appeared on the cart and took over the narrative while the stage Prospero remained silent and sat serenely with Miranda at his feet. The onstage characters effectively became a dumbshow for the offstage narration.

Antonio (Mark Ruan Pearce) entered to participate in the dramatisation of his usurpation of his brother Prospero. As he took over the reins of power, Prospero held aloft the sceptres of his dukedom in his raised hands. Antonio stood behind the chair and took them from him. His dealings with Alonso, the Duke of Naples, were seen in silhouette behind a sheet.

Miranda held puppets of Prospero and herself demonstrating their affection. The puppets were then placed on a model ship, along with a miniature book symbolising his library, to depict their banishment. Prospero mentioned Gonzalo’s kindness and the man himself appeared so that we would recognise him when he turned up later on the island.

The stage Prospero spoke again to explain what he had in store for his enemies. Miranda was sent to sleep on the platform as Ariel appeared on the cart.

Ariel was a gamely sprite who stared, his mouth agape, babbling to himself. “Beautiful, beautiful”, he exclaimed, establishing himself as a comic figure in the mould of Puck rather than a mystic presence.

He ran unhappily onto the stage when told there was more work to be done. The offstage Prospero once again took over narration of the story of Ariel’s imprisonment by Sycorax.

This and the initial narration were essentially magic effects that enhanced the mood of the performance.

Prospero woke Miranda to go visit Caliban (Paddy Hayter), who like other characters made his initial appearance on the cart. He immediately established his bestial nature by hurling logs from the cart over the heads of the audience onto the stage. When he came into clear view his physiognomy really did herald his soul.

A dark gravelly menacing voice issued forth from a face that had the hideous look of gargoyle. His words began as noises that seemed to rise from the drains below the street before taking form as speech. Everything about Caliban suggested darkness. He was redolent of the “unwholesome fen” about which he fulminated.

He rushed onstage from the cart to confront Prospero. His anger was mixed with ribald pleasure as he rubbed himself, relishing the prospect of using Miranda to people the island with Calibans.

Ariel brought Ferdinand to the top of the platform while Prospero escorted Miranda. She twirled around as if under his spell and was then presented with the sight of the young man.

Full of delight at what she had seen, she ran underneath the platform. When she emerged from its shadow, Ferdinand addressed her in French and she replied in the same language. Prospero spoke to him in English and he replied in English.

Prospero was quite violent when subduing Ferdinand’s resistance to his arrest. Not only did he immobilise he sword, but he also gestured with his staff a distant stabbing motion that translated into blows felt painfully by the young man.

The nobles wore masks with Gonzalo’s (Vincent Gracieux) notable for its half-smile and whiskered cheeks. Alonso’s (Paddy Hayter again) mask depicted a careworn frown (2.1).

The character of Adrian was cut, so Antonio and Sebastian (Shaji Karyat) did not wager who would speak first out of him and Gonzalo. Francisco was also cut, and the two missing characters’ lines were reallocated.

After speaking about his ideal republic from the platform, Gonzalo fell asleep there soon followed by Alonso who slumbered at its base. Antonio corrupted Sebastian with his plot to murder Alonso, but their blades were frozen midair when they tried to carry it out.

The aftermath was played for comedy with Antonio sheepishly trying to convince the others that they had heard “a whole herd of lions”.

Caliban took shelter in a cylindrical wicker loop as Italian-accented Trinculo (Shaji Karyat again) in his yellow jacket and red coxcomb appeared on the cart (2.2). Trinculo was accompanied by a small foam cloud that had been soaked in water so that it dripped like a raincloud when dangled high above him on a stick. This symbolised the oncoming storm.

Finding his way to the main stage, he lay inside the wicker loop on top of Caliban. Stephano (Vincent Gracieux again) appeared on the cart. He had a French accent and a ruddy drunkard’s face. Caliban responded immediately to the drink that Stephano poured into his mouth. He looked very drunk and immensely satisfied, preparing us for his adoration of his new masters.

Having extracted Trinculo from the wickerwork, Stephano was beset by Caliban who knelt in awe at the provider of the “celestial liquor”. Caliban actually kissed Stephano’s foot; the reality of that gesture underscored the sincerity of Caliban’s abject surrender.

Caliban swore to do them service. He rubbed his groin promising to show them where “crabs grow”, brandished his long nails when saying he would use them to dig out pignuts, and also vowed to bring them “filly-willy-berts”, before dancing joyously at his new freedom.

Ferdinand laboured carrying the heavy logs as ordered by Prospero (3.1). But when Miranda offered to bear them for him, he suddenly pretended that they were light in order to impress her. However, he clumsily let one drop onto his foot spoiling the effect.

Ferdinand spoke to Miranda in French to ask her name. The word play on Miranda and “admiration” in English worked in French translation where she was “admirable”. Miranda offered to be his wife and added a romantic touch to the moment by showering Ferdinand with dried petals as she spoke.

The rebel alliance met over a table with cups chained to it, an item of ship furniture salvaged from the supposed wreck (3.2). Ariel ventriloquised Trinculo, prompting an angry Stephano to hit him with a salami, which he also stuck uncomfortably between Trinculo’s legs, jerking it upwards.

Caliban produced a puppet version of Miranda to convince Stephano that it was worth killing Prospero to win her.

Music sounded and Caliban acted out his speech about the isle being full of noises. For all his darkness and menace, Caliban’s whimsical description of how he “cried to dream again” was very moving.

Interval

After the interval, comparatively late compared with most productions that pause after 2.2, we caught up with the tired nobles (3.3). The “strange shapes” that brought a banquet on stage were black figures with puppet heads held aloft above the shrouded performers. Their rounded white faces looked distinctly French in style. There was something eerily dreamlike about the way they floated about the stage, gracefully manipulated by the puppeteers.

Two poles were placed centre stage on top of which were balanced plates of food. Small pops were heard and paper debris flew up from the plates to represent the disappearance of the banquet.

Interestingly, the figure of the harpy was voiced by the actor playing Caliban. This was presumably because he was the most frightening of the actors and the one most suited to portraying the ultimate in monsters in the play.

Another performer flitted around the frightened nobles in a dark, black feathery costume with wings, while Ariel brandished a metal frame beak that snapped shut with a metallic clack representing the harpy’s ravenous mouth. The metal beak ended up on the platform from where it was thrown. It landed open, engulfing one of the noble’s heads in its maw, providing one of the production’s most effective and daring moments.

Prospero had freed Ferdinand from his shackles and explained his subterfuge to him on the cart in the yard (4.1). The official betrothal between Ferdinand and Miranda was followed by the appearance of Ceres, a masked figure with long straws radiating in a semi-circle from her head and with artificial straw breasts in the manner of a fertility goddess. She scattered rice into the air and dancing ensued on stage as Ferdinand and Miranda celebrated their forthcoming marriage.

The exotic figure of Ceres was one of the iconic images of the production. But for all its colour and spectacle this was not the dramatic highlight of the piece.

The celebrations were interrupted by Prospero remembering the rebels’ conspiracy. His ensuing speech about the disappearing vision, with its famous closing lines, had little impact because this was not a wistful production, but one grounded in earthy storytelling.

Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo made their way up and across the cart and down its far side wearing grassy headdresses that hinted at their wanderings in the dirt and mire of the island.

In order to distract them from their mission to kill Prospero, items of fine clothing were wafted across the stage on the end of large poles, the garments flying over the heads of the audience. The trio tried on the clothes before performers in dog masks came to scare them away.

A comic note was struck as one of them found a large bone and threw it to distract the dogs. This did not work. Then another of them found a bouncy ball and threw that, which seemed to work for one of the dogs, but the others still pursued them.

Prospero stood on the platform satisfied that his plan was succeeding (5.1). Ariel persuaded him to be merciful, but this transformation from vengeance to forgiveness was not overly emphasised. The contemplative aspect of Ariel is commonly brought out at this moment in a production. But here, Ariel was characterised as a comedy sprite and so was portrayed without a serious side.

However, Prospero’s abjuration of his rough magic was passionately delivered and thereby impressively dramatic.

Ariel brought in the king and his party. They walked slowly as a large black net was lifted off the ground in the centre circle and deposited over them, trapping the men as their hands reached upwards trying to escape.

Prospero talked of them as his prisoners but then ordered their release and caused the net to be removed.

Alonso knelt in front of Prospero, who responded by turning aside from him, instead ushering Gonzalo to his side, greeting his favourite as “First, noble friend…” This neatly summarised Prospero’s priorities and the reason for them.

Finally he used his magic to draw his brother Antonio in front of him. Prospero’s distaste for his perfidious sibling was written across his scowling face, underscoring his statement that to call him brother “would even infect my mouth”. He followed this by repeating “Shanti, shanti, shanti”, a Sanskrit invocation of peace, in an attempt to calm himself.

He took the crown from Antonio and placed it on his own head.

Ferdinand and Miranda were revealed in silhouette behind a sheet to Alonso who went to join them. Miranda came out from behind the sheet to greet the brave new world.

The rebels were brought in and Caliban lay on the ground as Prospero acknowledged him as his own. Prospero freed Ariel, who became ecstatic at his liberty. He delivered the epilogue, at the end of which he cast away his staff and book before exiting.

But this was not the end of the performance.

Caliban picked up Prospero’s staff and pointed it menacingly at the islanders who had gathered to watch. He indicated by gesture that the power of the staff was not good to use and threw it away.

Next he looked at Prospero’s book and took it with him up onto the platform. He lay on his side and began tearing out pages. He screwed them into thin wraps and set them on fire by inserting them into one of several candle holders around the edge of the platform. After symbolically consigning Prospero’s magic to the fire, he lay and slept contentedly.

Conclusions

Prospero’s overriding desire to reclaim his dukedom seemed to eclipse the forgiveness he extended to his brother, partly because his conversion to goodness was an incomplete one.

The rendering of the story as a fable prevented some of its weightier aspects from being developed. As a symptom of this, we were presented with a one-dimensional Ariel. This was compensated, though, by the most marvellous Caliban, whose gravelly voice made for a very convincing monster.

The production was full of spectacle, but its most moving moments were not those that were the most photogenic. Crucially, the use of multiple languages (French, English, Sanskrit and Malayalam) worked very well and added to the production rather than being a bolted-on gimmick.

The concluding libricide was novel and striking. But given the controversial history of this practice, is burning even a few pages of a book something to be presented as entertainment?

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