nytheatre.com review by Alyssa Simon
February 26, 2010
[Note: A summary of the story of The Tempest is here.]
In The Tempest's program, Sam Mendes writes in his director's note that The Tempest and As You Like It, both running in repertory at BAM right now, "are designed and conceived as a single gesture, a single journey" and he speaks of similarities in themes such as betrayals by brothers, exile, and redemption. As well as this production illuminates some of these—and beautifully so—like forgiveness and the power of love, its directorial focus on the inner life of Prospero raises more questions than answers about the lives and motivations of everyone else in the play.
In most productions of The Tempest I have seen, Prospero is portrayed as a powerful wizard with a voice and temperament to match. Stephen Dillane's is different: a loving father who seems to attend to his magic rituals almost reluctantly when he has to tear himself away from his books. With a voice as soft and tired as his shabby suit, he's like a sweet but melancholy guy at a bar who likes to talk about the good old days when he was Duke.
This makes for a really interesting psychological portrayal of a soft-hearted man who has alienated himself on his own emotional island through his ambivalence about power, but it doesn't quite ring true, then, that he is also capable of whipping up a hurricane to bring his former usurpers under his control.
When he keeps asking his daughter Miranda (Juliet Rylance) if she is listening to him, it sounds more pathetic than patriarchal. Set designer Tom Piper has put a small circle of sand on the much larger stage that represents the playing space and the island. Dillane walks around and around on the perimeter, literally walking in circles as he talks and calls to his spirit servant Ariel (Christian Camargo) is if he were answering voices in his head.
Since he calls him after he has put Miranda to sleep, this may be so, and leaves one to ask if Prospero could be crazy. If so, he has at least got a heck of an imagination in conjuring up a creature as beautiful and stylish as Camargo's Ariel. Dressed by costume designer Catherine Zuber as a glamorous rock star who looks like a member of The Strokes, Camargo is lovely to look at and befittingly spritely, but I didn't know how he felt when he talked about wanting his release from servitude to Prospero.
I wonder if that was a deliberate choice, much as Ron Cephas Jones's Caliban exclaiming that the island is rightfully his without the rage of one who is a slave to invaders of his homeland. It's almost as if both characters are characters in Prospero's imagination. Or, two sides of his own persona—one, Ariel, being his imagination and fancy that yearns to be free, and the other, Caliban, his base nature, uncivilized and of the earth.
This brings up another issue. There are several interpretations of Caliban as representing the Native American who was "discovered" by British explorers and who Shakespeare is supposed to have read about in popular travel journals of his day. As with Shylock, Shakespeare brings out the humanity in this outsider by giving him some of the most beautiful verse lines in the play about the beauty of his home.
Nothing is made of Jones, as an African American actor, portraying a slave or being fed alcohol by the King's jester Trinculo and Stephano, the royal and drunken butler, and believing they are gods crying "Freedom! New Man! Freedom! New Man!" up until the very end when Prospero puts his hand on Caliban's head and says, with great emphasis on the last word, "this thing of darkness." So, it's confusing. If there is no political statement to make, fine. There shouldn't have to be one just because the actor portraying Caliban is black.
However, if at the very end, a recognition of racial otherness and all the loaded history that comes with it is brought into the world of the play, then the characters are no longer sprung from Prospero's imagination and then I don't understand why they don't have specific feelings and reasons behind what they say. The characters may not be humans, but their words are filled with feelings and desires.
As the young lovers, Rylance and Edward Bennett's Ferdinand are clear and lovely in their direct and honest love for each other. Both actors endow their characters with humor and integrity. Rylance especially shows us Miranda's compassion as more than simple naivete; it's the essential goodness of human beings when we are not corrupted by the world.
Alvin Epstein, however, as Gonzalo, shows us the heart and soul of a man who is very much part of the world and makes the choice to not be corrupt. His performance, like every other time I have seen his work, is incandescent.
Speaking of incandescence, Mendes makes sure you get sparkling masques, banquet scenes, live music, and winged creatures aplenty as befits a late Shakespeare romance and all the spectacle that goes with them. You will see a physically beautiful production and an excellent cast. Since The Tempest is all about what is real and what is an illusion, it may not be such a bad thing that not everything is spelled out.