The Tempest (American Shakespeare Center) @ The Blackfriars Playhouse

The Tempest, as Lynne Magnussen argues, is full of interruptions. For a play full of artifice and prepared show, it also insists on breaking up those shows, disturbing them, whether interrupting Miranda and Ferdinand at chess, having a harpy overturn a feast, or prompting Prospero to disrupt the masque he himself created for his daughter and her fiancé. In the ASC’s latest Renaissance Season show, however, the interruptions began even before the show itself. Summer England, reciting the pre-show litany that is as much a staple of the Blackfriars experience as the lights being on, neared the conclusion of her speech, beginning to announce the title of the play, and then froze at the sound of a bell. Sarah Fallon’s Prospero emerged from the discovery space, and used her staff to set the lowest chandeliers swinging, before allowing England – now the Boatswain – to scream ‘TEMPEST!’ as she clung to a helm that now seemed unstable.

Prospero’s power is a kind of authorial privilege, the ability to write scripts and characters for others to follow (even if, often, the actual magic is wielded by someone else), and having Prospero metatheatrically interrupt the apparatus surrounding the show itself introduced a self-aware show that made full use of the resources of the Blackfriars. The fact that the wooden frame of the Blackfriars actually does look like a ship served the opening tempest well, with just a few ropes and barrels adding to the effect. The stage became a deck and, as the storm slowly built up, and more and more character stumbled onto the stage, that stage itself seemed to tilt. The rumbling of thunder, the roar of thunder and the chiming of bells – played in the tiring house, but seeming to suffuse and surround the space – were added to by the whistles, shouts, and bangs created onstage, and Ariel (Corrie Green), standing in the balcony, waved her arms to cue mass rolling of the company to crash to one side or another. Sebastian (Meg Rodgers) threw up messily in a barrel; Gonzalo (Alexis Baigue) tiresomely insisted that others attend to him; and Ferdinand (Mauricio Miranda) was left dangling off the downstage edge of the deck, his father Alonso (Sam Saint Ours) clinging onto him for dear life. He lost him in the final crash of thunder, and the company were scattered, Gonzalo being pulled back by his legs through the blue curtains across the discovery space that suddenly seemed to pivot through ninety degrees to represent the plummet into the roaring ocean.

The collaborative creation of the storm by the actors, rather than through externally generated special effects, anticipated a production which took great pleasure in the construction of its internal shows. The wedding masque for Miranda (Sarah Suzuki) and Ferdinand, most notably, brought together the whole ensemble to play the goddesses blessing the union, before four nymphs emerged and pulled Miranda and Ferdinand themselves into a joyful country dance; the fact that the nymphs themselves were laughing joyfully during this made all the difference. The simplicity (and yet visible skill) of song and dance, emerging from Prospero’s underlings, encapsulated the benign aspect of Prospero’s magic, his use of spectacle to not only provide entertainment but also to activate bodily the intended audience. Wheeled around in joyful movement by the nymphs, Miranda and Ferdinand found themselves suddenly together, looking at one another, and Miranda finally threw Ferdinand back and kissed him, the kiss long-awaited through their brief courtship.

Was Prospero benign? More so than usual, at least. The company kept the language of ‘father’, but Fallon’s long, flowing blue hair and robes acknowledged and foregrounded the cross-gender casting and explored an authority beyond the purely patriarchal. Prospero’s softness towards his daughter except when putting on a front of anger before Ferdinand suggested a genuine care for his own, and with Ariel Prospero also affected a gentle mastery, sprinkled with the body language and verbal language of love. Prospero smiled beatifically down from the gallery (a shame, perhaps, to isolate Fallon so often on the distant upper level, but an understandable choice for highlighting Prospero’s watchfulness) at the painfully awkward wooing of Ferdinand and Miranda, in which Miranda veered between extremes of crying and declaration of marriage, wasn’t sure what to do with Ferdinand’s hand, and skipped offstage rather than waiting for a kiss. This Prospero was patient, watchful, calm, and got what he wanted.

But there were cracks in this, perhaps most powerfully shown in the relationship between Prospero and Ariel. Ariel, in Green’s performance, was all deference and trilling delight, desperate to please, in ways that in turn pleased Prospero. Ariel – not human, of course, but presenting in the body of this actor as a young Black woman – was the epitome of good servant, giving all and taking nothing. But when they showed the smallest form of resistance, Fallon’s Prospero firmed up, immediately turning to anger and threat, and leaving Ariel shaking with fear, desperate to return back to the happy, skipping servant. The image of the powerful white woman showing benign compassion to the Black woman as long as the Black woman remained in her place, but immediately threatening incarceration and punishment the second Ariel stepped out of line, brought to mind any number of critiques of White Feminism (Kate Manne and Alison Phipps spring to mind, all of course leading back to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectionality) that seeks equality and power with the patriarchy only to then reserve and sustain that power exclusively for white women. At any rate, Ariel was desperate to seem happy to please, and Prospero was happy to accept their service.

This only rumbled as an undercurrent for much of a pacy and very funny production. When Prospero was left watching Miranda and Ferdinand, the production felt almost domestic. A winsome Ferdinand sang the refrain of ‘Hooked on a Feeling’ as he danced with a log, happy in the idea of admired Miranda; Miranda, meanwhile, shared gleeful glances with the audience as she drank in the sight of the first man she e’er sighed for. The joy that the two took in one another – even if Ferdinand, Lysander-like, seemed like he wanted a little more (and more quickly) than Miranda was ready for just yet – gave a strong emotional heart to the play’s marriage storyline, and the production unusually retained the reading ‘So rare a wondered father, and a wife’, allowing him to acknowledge Miranda within the confines of the masque, rather than doubling down on praise of Prospero. And the sight of them arm-wrestling with one another rather than playing chess in the discovery space was delightful.

The story of the lovers was supported well by some truly excellent performances among the shipwrecked sailors. Saint Ours, dashing as a kind of pirate-king Alonso and all in black, was a dynamic presence even in his mourning, sticking mostly to the downstage space and continually looking outwards as if in hope of finding his lost son. Gonazalo’s rambling (accompanied by England as Adrian) offered a bathetic counterpoint to Alonso being carried away by his emotions. But the nobles’ scenes belonged to Rodgers and James Keegan as Sebastian and Antonio. Rodgers is an actor of rare skill in her ability to find surprising readings, and she infused Sebastian with unusual anger and defiance from the start, Sebastian blaming his brother for the overseas alliances he was building that had led them to this point. This particularly bitter Sebastian was the perfect mark for Antonio. Keegan beautifully built his conspiracy from external prompts, following the sight of his sword with the sight of Sebastian, developing a carefully plotted arc that drew in Sebastian and made himself a spectacle as he turned and showed off his fine clothes. Antonio’s self-display was, of course, impoverished next to the magical displays of Prospero and Ariel, but the gaudiness and gall of his use of himself as exemplar made his danger all too apparent.

Ariel had free rein over the stage as they manipulated events, using hand-held bells to lead stupefied sailors to where they needed to be; turning into a dog to rally unseen spirits into a chorus of barking against the clowns; and moving between upper and lower spaces, or even working off the stage, as needed. Caliban (Tevin Davis), by contrast, emerged from the trap, and he gestured to the under-stage space as a place of confinement. Prospero, Ariel and Caliban all wore clothes that evoked the sea, including netting, but Caliban – a dark-skinned Black man – was defined not by the blues of Prospero and Ariel, but by bright multi-coloured hues of African origin. He had indignity forced upon him by his confinement – the realization of Prospero’s carceral discipline – and his anger emerged in response to that. In one powerful but ambiguous reading, Cailban’s reaction to Prospero’s accusation of his attempt to rape Miranda read to me as shock at the accusation, before he broke into laughter; the laughter implied to me, not that this had actually happened, but that he immediately recognized the racist script of the rapacious Black man that Prospero was writing for him.

Alone onstage, Caliban longed for power. He wielded the sticks he carried as if Prospero’s staff, waving them in the air, hoping to reclaim a power he felt was due to him. When Trinculo (Annabelle Rollison) and Stephano (Erica Cruz Hernández) turned up, he immediately recognized them for the clowns they were. Rollison and Hernández, were funny; Rollison’s physical comedic range and mugging were always entertaining, and Stephano’s drunken slurring gave him a pleasingly chaotic energy. But their main function was as foils to Caliban. Caliban didn’t drink (but knew enough to pretend to), and shared despairing glances with the audience to let us know he was by no means taken in by these men. Rather, he saw a use for them. By pretending to become their servant, he was able to manipulate them into action on his behalf, and he knew he could steer them. This powerful reading of Caliban offered important counter-resistance to Prospero’s assumption of power. This Caliban was not stupid, not petty; he was, however, not going to play nice for his master. In some ways, it was a shame that Davis doubled as Juno for the sake of the masque; it would have perhaps been even more powerful not to see this actor sharing the role of one of Prospero’s dancers, because this Caliban wouldn’t dance for anyone (not even for Chumbawamba as he shut down Trinculo’s rendition of ‘Tubthumping’; Caliban, like so many, perhaps not recognizing the anarcho-communist potential behind the perennial earworm).

The sobering conclusion to this Tempest served as the beginnings of a reckoning for Prospero, if not a punishment. Prospero took his time re-dressing into his Milanese robes, and Fallon’s sober expression and slight hesitance communicated something of the severity of this choice, backed up by the dramatic snapping of the staff before the epilogue. Much of the final scene was truly joyful, Alonson in particular delighting in the rediscovery of Ferdinand and Miranda, and the reunion between father and son was respectful and profound as Ferdinand knelt before Alonso. But there were unsettling signs. A still-drunk Stephano swung at Alonso, refusing to let go of his idea of kingship, and had to be escorted off-stage by Trinculo. Antonio and Sebastian’s proprietorial eye on Caliban, meanwhile, was shockingly interrupted – the most important and surprising interruption since the beginning of the show – by the Master, played by Brandon Carter, the only other Black man onstage. Blowing his whistle, the Master stepped forward and stared down the nobles, who backed away from Caliban, and the whole mood shifted. It felt like, now, there might be accountability, but that accountability was coming from Black individuals lower in the pecking order standing up in solidarity, not from the white Kings and Dukes who ostensibly had power.

Prospero, finally, freed Ariel. And Ariel turned and walked away. This was, perhaps, one of the most powerful choices made by this production, retrospectively casting Ariel’s performance in a completely new light. Where earlier Ariel’s desire to please had perhaps seemed genuine and faltering slightly, suddenly it became clear that Ariel had only ever done what they needed to in order to survive; once freed, there was no need for acknowledgement or thanks, and perhaps the strongest thing Ariel could do was turn so immediately that Prospero was left hanging, his expectation of gratitude or indeed any form of connection denied. It was in this light that Prospero gave a somewhat desperate epilogue, backing away towards the curtain as he asked to be set free, and not waiting for applause before leaving the stage on an ambiguous note. And then, the trapdoor opened. Caliban returned, and found himself alone on the stage with the two broken halves of Prospero’s staff. And from the back of the auditorium, a waiting Ariel called to him: ‘Freedom’. Joining him onstage, it was Ariel and Caliban who led the bows, inheriting the island, their enslaver forgotten.

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