Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"The Tempest", RSC, Richmond Green Theatre

We took the children to see the matinee last weekend. There was a disapproving comment from a woman in the row behind to the effect that the children were "too young", but they seemed to largely follow what was going on and enjoy the play, having been given a quick introduction (based on the programme notes).

I have had affection for "The Tempest" for years, due to references to it in a book my Madeleine L'Engle and a more substantial analysis in "A Meaningful World". Despite this, I only read it last year, and this was the first time I had seen it performed.

The setting was African, with the spirits being given spectacular African costumes, and large puppets featuring at several stages in the action. A small group of musicians, visible at the back of the stage and amplified, enhanced the setting. Anthony Sher was Prospero, and John Kani was Caliban.

The direction hinted at colonial/apartheid overtones. Thus, Caliban, although a "bad person", was ultimately being wronged by Prospero by having his land taken from him, and the play presented Prospero's departure, specifically leaving Caliban free "to be wise hereafter and seek for grace", as the culmination of the play. Also, the director chose to portray Prospero's turning away from revenge as something prompted by Ariel - something not really present in the text, but conveyed through the actions of the cast. The text certainly bore these things, although the portrayal of Prospero as less of a "wise old man" and more of somebody needing to make a journey of forgiveness somewhat muddies the archetypes. And if Ariel were able to deflect his master in such a way, would he really have put up with the resentment caused by thirteen years of bondage?

The production chose to interpret Prospero's relationship with Ariel as one of repressed homosexuality. I didn't feel this was necessary - it is certainly possible to interpret the text that way, if you choose, in the same way that by ignoring other textual matters in the Bible you can interpret David and Jonathan's relationship as a homosexual one. But it did seem a somewhat unnecessary addition of a modern, gay agenda to a text that is quite rich enough on its own. However, it wasn't laboured to the point of drowning the rest of the narrative - the children weren't led to ask about it!

The play was spectacular and enjoyable, and as a first exposure of the children to Shakespeare, worked very well.

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