Last evening, fearing that Melbourne’s muggy heat might not lead to a good old-fashioned thunderstorm, I decided to make assurance doubly sure: so I went to see The Tempest. (This particular production, by the way, can be seen at J Studios, 100 Barkly St Fitzroy on most days until the 20th of February 2010. For bookings call 0457 048 103.)
It’s been years since I saw Shakespeare live on stage – four, to be exact – and even then it was a collation of all the gruesome bits: a morbid melange put on by the Monash University Shakespeare Society and fetchingly entitled Violent Delights. The title, of course, is taken from Romeo and Juliet: ‘These violent delights have violent ends’ (II.v.9). Violent Delights was stunning. One actor’s collar-bone was broken during the original run, and another nearly lost an eye. Seriously. But it wasn’t what you’d call an authentic Shakespeare experience.
But then nor was The Tempest, until after the interval. But I’ll get to that.
I’m not really an ideal audience member for a production of any of Shakespeare’s plays because I like reading them too much. When you read more Shakespeare than you watch, you tend to suffer from a condition that I call autodirectosuperiomania.
In other words, you always think that you could do better if you were directing the production: because in your head you have unlimited resources and your actors are infinitely talented, infinitely attractive and infinitely obedient.
The reality, of course, is that directing is a thorny, thorny business, actors need to be cosseted rather than ordered around and resources on the average production are less than nil.
Still. A man can dream, can’t he?
The Tempest is my favourite play by Shakespeare. It was the Swan of Avon’s swan song and it contains the greatest monologue you’ll find in the complete works:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Anyone who wants to take me to bed has only to say those lines to me. I’m yours, be you ne’er so ugly. I think it’s the most beautiful thing ever written in the English language, and the greatest summation of the ephemeral art that is the theatre.
Anyway: The Tempest, and an authentic Shakespeare experience.
Director Dylan Lincoln and the Controlled Chaos Theatre Company have the right basic ideas: minimise the props, black curtains as the only backdrop, keep the costumes simple but clearly evocative. Put the guys in tights where possible (some pretty nice legs were in evidence, by the way). The only thing on stage other than the actors was a tree-stump. To be honest, we could all have done without the tree-stump, but at least it didn’t get in the way.
Up until the interval, the production was simply clear and swiftly moving. But then during the interval the lighting rig died – and then it got really good. With only the house lights up, everyone in the room was equally lit: audience, cast – everyone. None of this enabling lighting people to flex the artistic muscles they generally don’t have. Just a room full of people in which language is everything.
Now that’s an authentic Shakespeare experience. The authentic Shakespeare experience is all in the words, so every distraction takes something away from the language and that takes away part of what makes the Bard worth worshiping.
I’d have directed the play very differently. I’d have cast it differently, too. You’d marry their Miranda without the slightest hesitation, but the way she played it you’d never want to talk to her, and Prospero was too frail too often and too early. Ariel, for some reason, seemed to come from Broadmeadows, even though she moved like a hauntingly beautiful dream, and Caliban would have been a heck of a lot more savage with a tougher Prospero. But I can cast and direct to my heart’s content in my head.
After the interval, though, I was really watching Shakespeare. And I was loving it.
And if I could be sure that more lighting rigs would die and more directors were prepared to strip things back to basics, I’d be going to watch productions more often.
In the mean time, autodirectosuperiomania rules me.
Ask me about the great idea I’ve got for a production of Macbeth sometime.