Two weeks ago we went to see The Tempest at the University of Illinois’ Krannert Center f or the Performing Arts. It was one of the most amazing aesthetic experiences I’ve ever had. Two previous posts on this can be found here and here.
I must admit I’ve never before gone twice to the same production of a play. I could blame cost, time, or the difficulties of getting to the theater, but it seems more likely that something from my past is stuck in me, like a broken elevator in the tower of self. A certain American mindset thinks live theater is an extravagance anyway, and to see more than one performance of the same production would be like gorging yourself on a second hot-fudge sundae after church while wearing furs and sitting on a beggar. Who has no ice-cream.
(My mother-in-law, whom we asked to baby-sit, couldn’t understand why we would want to see The Tempest two nights in a row either. She’s a Scot. So let’s blame Protestantism, then.)
Recent Nobel laureate Doris Lessing wrote in a 1992 op-ed piece in the New York Times, “Every writer has the experience of being told that a novel, a story, is ‘about’ something or other.… That a work of the imagination has to be ‘really’ about some problem is… an heir of Socialist Realism. To write a story for the sake of storytelling is frivolous, not to say reactionary.”
The Tempest has been interpreted as really being about imperialism, or the play’s own processes, or that it’s Shakespeare’s farewell to the troops. As we again took our seats onstage on our rusty oilcans, Mrs. Churm and I agreed we were simply excited to be embarking on another human drama.
A little closer attention to the playbill, this time. Gregory Thompson, director, and the cast had every credential an occasional Shakespeare-goer might long for: Royal Shakespeare, Royal Court, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Bard College, Bath, BBC TV and radio, several motion pictures, etc. AandBC Theatre Company began to tour The Tempest in 1999, at Canterbury and Lincoln’s Inn, then took it to Prague, Poland, Russia, Romania, Trinidad, Hong Kong…and Wisconsin and Illinois. David Fielder (Prospero) was the only actor to have been with the show since the start, and he said that cast change had been “a blessing,” because it let him reinvent himself continuously in response to the rest of the ensemble. Nine of 12 players were new this time around, and they had only 12 days to prepare for opening. (Mr. Fielder has been a working actor for 35 years, been in 200 plays, and he worked with Beckett in Paris. He’s also on the board at Shared Experience.)
The second night got off to a slower start. Prospero’s voice was thick, and the ensemble strained to do their Ariel lifts and move to their next positions. They were panting almost immediately. I wondered if there had been a raucous cast party the night before, but decided against it, since I had not been invited. The enormous nylon balloon tethered to the floor fit the lunar fantasy, but I noticed for the first time that it glared a little and wished the light inside could be made warmer to indicate day (or forgiveness) and colder for night (and Caliban’s rage).
But I quickly fell into the action, which took place among us, next to us, above, behind and violently through us, the audience. One minute, Prospero was sitting next to me; next I heard his voice far overhead and looked up at him in the wings of the space, and wondered how he could have gotten up there so quickly.
As I said before, Ariel, the sprite that serves Prospero, was played by 10 people at once, and it caused a lot of noise and motion. They spoke sometimes as Greek chorus, sometimes as individuals. When Prospero summoned them to disperse the buffoons plotting against him, their combined fury was so great, and there was such a great frenzy among us, that I said—much too loudly—a line from the movie Night at the Museum: “Better run, Dum-Dum!” I never do this. The Churms are not theater-talkers.
The same cast members also became the harpy in the play, one person on another’s shoulders and the others linking arms. Together they swayed and made a grabbing motion, shouting, hissing, and snarling at us, since the character they were angry with was behind us somewhere. Who could turn around to look at him? Amy Finegan (the only American cast member) had composed powerful Gregorian-sounding chants for the ensemble, as well as a cappella solos and harmonies, and when Peter Kenney soared from his normal range to harmonize with her in falsetto, it was mind-blowing.
The crowd was bigger and livelier on the second night. The mean age of the audience had dropped by 40 years, and more light was reflected from more upturned faces. Three high school girls giggled and made faces and stuck out their tongues at Lord Stephano (Peter Kenney), after he did a spit-take and got one of them wet. Mr. Kenney obviously noticed their antics and came back to speak a few of his more threatening lines in their faces. When that didn’t fix the disruption, he spoke to them at intermission. After the break, the rest of the cast seemed to spend a lot of time around the girls, and they got jostled and looked scared. By the last half-hour, though, the presence of the play itself had broken through their need for adolescent show, and they seemed concerned with the characters and engaged with the drama. (I remembered being jostled and struck the previous night; how didst I offend thee, Caliban?)
Shakespeare’s lyricism is often made of hard nouns and action verbs. And amidst those blessings of union, there’s thuggery. (It’s odd, feeling so deeply for Caliban, who follows a dolt just because a new master is better than the old. With Caliban [the excellent Jem Wall] I felt eager and then impatient for Stephano to kill Prospero. But when Stephano, finally drunk enough to be murderous, made his face competent, I only feared for Prospero. This all happened four feet away.)
This production made the most of Shakespeare’s physicality. During the course of the play, Caliban licked an audience member’s foot and rubbed his sweaty, grimy cheek with the back of someone else’s hand. Alonso, King of Naples (Richard Heap) breathed hard on the top of my head. A vaporous spit-take by Caliban caught an older man in jacket and tie—professor emeritus?—full in the face. (He grimaced the rest of the play.) Prospero split a thumbnail climbing up the biggest folding ladder in the world then came down and ran around the island of us at top speed, yelling incantations.
Director Gregory Thompson described his unusual staging as practical process, not sudden insight. Originally the play was to take place in front of a small audience on the stage. Then, it was decided to move actors around the perimeter of the audience, and only after that had been tried did they see that acting among the audience was easier and more effective.
It also kept everyone within the island of light under the balloon. Thompson liked the idea of “shared light” for actors and audience, as it was in the Globe Theatre, because one consequence of technology in the theater, he said, has been to distance us—audience at a distance from the stage, actors at emotional distance from audience due to bright lights in their eyes. His innovation was to overcome the problems of technology by using technology in a new way. (The balloon was made for European police to use at accident scenes.)
Similarly, the rusty can-seats came about in small steps. The parent company of Guinness sponsored a theatrical event and left behind several dozen big containers painted black to look like their beer cans, for promotional purposes. Thompson added cork tops and used them as seats, with the idea that they would look like tree stumps on the island. But that looked too grim, he thought, and with some paint made them into “oil cans” washed up after the shipwreck.
Most of us won’t stand in the mud with the rabble and the chickens to watch a play down at the Globe anymore, and not every play should allow us as far in as this one did—there’s something to be said for convention sometimes. But there are some experiences you can’t get any other way. Film versions of Shakespeare can be very good, but the technology’s limitations—flatness, graininess, our sudden awareness that the film was made in another context and with a different time’s technologies—are distracting and limiting. Reading the plays, hearing a teacher talk about them, or reading critical essays about them are also other things, often diminishments.
This may be a test of art; it resists possession. Even the form I value most—writing—is an event in the mind that begins to lose detail the moment our eyes move beyond a sentence. We’re left with an emotional tone but already have forgotten how the writer scattered the words—corn, wine, oil—through a paragraph where we would register the chord. We re-read to check memory against the text’s reality, to make the experience more immediate.
There seems to be a movement on to take back drama from the giant auditoriums, from dinner theaters with clattering cups and dessert service, to make things more immediate. Black-box minimalism is one attempt, of course, as are recent productions in old houses and forest preserves, the actors racing from room to room, or clearing to glade, to deliver lines as the audience moves through the spaces. In our hunger for meaningful theater, we even find potato farming dramatic.
Middle-class Americans in the nineteenth century loved Shakespeare as they would a contemporary, which is nearly puzzling to us now. (It was also the era of the Chautauqua, and the lecture tours that kept Twain solvent.) They knew the language is not gushing and purple; it’s hard and glittering, and direct experience with it returns us to our common world.
For me, the experience of this production was “about” that thing most ethereal, the poetic imagination, becoming hard reality. (Prospero uses magic to produce the hardest of results—a return to Milan, to power, and the advantageous marriage of his daughter.) In an age where our wars and our fools get equal attention, and the fools running our wars believe in irreality, Shakespeare abides.
And now for the bad news: There are no more performances in this tour. (Send complaints about me stringing you along to: Doug Lederman, Editor, Inside Higher Ed.) I kept asking Mr. Thompson in various ways about this, disbelieving, until I think he found me amusing. But bewitchments end, and we must ship for Naples and get on with the marriage and running the country. Let’s hope AandBC returns to our American island, soon, for a wider run, but not for more than a hundred people at a time.