Review : Commonwealth Shakespeare presents The Tempest on Boston Common

We’re baaaaacccckkk!

I had a killer streak going for CommShakes shows. Until recently I’d been to something like 14 of their shows. Last year was off for everybody, and the year before that I missed it because my mom was sick, so it’s been two years off. I was looking forward to a return with The Tempest, my favorite, which I’ve started referring to as “our family play” because my children know it so well. I don’t take the kids to many productions – they went to Romeo and Juliet a few years back, and of course, they’d be coming to The Tempest.

We started out unfortunately on a poor note, as we arrived to discover there were no chairs for us. This is a free, outdoor production where you claim your space by putting down your blanket, bring a picnic, what have you. But you can normally rent chairs, which we’ve always done – it’s an easy way to contribute money to the cause. This year they changed that, requiring that you get chairs in advance, and due to a poorly designed mobile website I didn’t get that memo. So, after finding no help among the volunteers to remedy the situation, I spent the whole production trying to figure out how to get comfortable on the ground. I probably would have ended up with a more charitable review if that all hadn’t happened.

Stuff I Loved

Loved the opening. The whole cast comes out, just stands there. Breathing. Calm. Tranquility. Get the audience settled down and paying attention. Prospero, in the center, raises his staff over his head and slams it onto the ground. BOOM, storm. Chaos. Waves. Thunder. Screaming. Actors, including a not yet introduced Ariel, circling the stage like a tornado. And then, when the time is right? Prospero lifts his staff, and the storm is over. Nice.

Along those same lines, loved the special effects. You can only do so much with an outside production like this, and it being such a magic heavy show doesn’t help. But they did a great job with the simple stuff – a hand gesture from Prospero would immediately freeze a character in his tracks, or kill the lights, or summon thunder – but also with some more prop-oriented symbolic ideas, like Ariel attaching a red ribbon to Ferdinand and tugging him toward Miranda.

Ariel magically guides Ferdinand toward Miranda.

Love love loved their Caliban. Best part of the show for me. When he’s introduced he comes running at Prospero to attack, and we see that he is tied down by one leg. He looks like a vicious dog. And he’s got no cower in him, let me tell you. Standing there at the length of his rope, hopping on one foot, he’s swinging his arms and hurling sand and casting his own curses in Prospero’s direction. Great stuff. Later, after he meets up with Stephano and Trinculo, he balances the drunken comedy with a very believable “Guys, you’re not really getting me – if you don’t focus on the mission and kill Prospero when you have the chance it is going to go *very bad for us*.” Despite showing almost no fear in the opening scene, he’s got plenty of fear.

A truly great Caliban. I wish his “Be not afeard” moment got the attention it deserved.

Loved the comedy. I’m not generally a huge fan of the “play it over the top so the audience gets it” kind of stuff, but I understand the necessity for it. Miranda was a big hit, really playing up the “man crazy” aspect of the teenage girl who suddenly realizes just how many people there are in this brave new world. Later when Stephano and Trinculo arrive they just knock it out of the park. I could watch the Stephano/Trinculo/Caliban show like a tv series.

Ok, Stephano and Trinculo went a little Three Stooges at times, but I still loved them.

Stuff I Didn’t Love

Unfortunately, what I saw as a very uneven Prospero. Personally, I like a bit of a scary Prospero who runs his island the way he wants it, and takes no back talk. After all, this is a father who has done nothing but protect his daughter (and plot his revenge!) for twelve years. He doesn’t have time to relax. What I got was a father getting walked on by his daughter (during the first “pluck my garment from me” moment, she just walks away, leaving him to chase her). He then starts crying while explaining their back story. Huh?

I’m trying to read this in the context of “the father of the bride who cries at the wedding.” Prospero knows how this story plays out. He knows that every interaction with his daughter is part of this last chapter. He’s sad. I can kind of get behind that. Not usually how I see it, but I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong.

But when he’s not crying he’s screaming at everybody. He screams the “Our revels now are ended” bit? I don’t think I understood what they were going for, there. I tried to explain it to my wife and kids something like this: “This is like his wedding present to Miranda and Ferdinand. He’s bringing out all the stops, he’s literally summoned down the goddesses for their blessing. He’s showing the full power of his art, and he’s happy to be in the moment. But then he’s broken from that trance by the realization that he still has to deal with everything else that’s going on, and he’s angry about it.” That could be complete BS from what the director/actor intended, but it’s how I figured to read it.

Prospero breaks his staff.

Other Things

Lot of stuff just kind of ends up in the middle. Like Ariel. Ariel here is a dancer. He ballets his way around the various scenes. <shrug> Ok, I guess? I didn’t get any connection. I told the kids on the walk back to the car, “Ariel’s got this great opportunity to play with the relationship to Prospero. Do they love each other? Or is it resent? Why does he keep asking, and complaining?” I’ve seen productions where the minute Prospero says you’re free, Ariel’s gone without turning his head, and ones where he goes give a last look back. I don’t feel like any attention was paid to Ariel’s freedom here, he just kind of left.

The music. Parts were good — somehow they made the “Caliban ban ban” song a real toe tapper. But in the beginning, with the “Full fathom five” bits? Their version of Ariel working with the other spirits on the island involved some singing women coming through the back of the stage who looked exactly like the women who hop down off the Grecian urn in Disney’s animated Hercules movie. Once I had that image in my head I couldn’t shake it, unfortunately.

Ariel’s helper spirits entrance Miranda.

The rest of the cast? If a scene didn’t involve Prospero, Caliban or Miranda, it just didn’t rise to the same level. They aren’t the stars, true. Their scenes are mostly about plot. But I don’t know if it was the delivery, or the blocking, or just the sound system, but my family spent most of this time “We’re lost, what’s happening?” Antonio in particular I felt was miscast. Maybe it’s because I recognized him from previous clown roles, but I was trying to sell him to my kids as, “Ok, this guy’s a real bastard, he’s trying to get Sebastian to kill the king and he doesn’t think twice about killing the only witness,” and I just wasn’t feeling it.

Conclusion

Overall? It’s Shakespeare under the stars, it’s The Tempest, and I don’t care if I had to stand through the whole thing, I’m going to watch it and I’m going to look for parts I love. If I was still in my bachelor days I’d probably go back and see it three times, looking for different things every time. Go see these things, I’m sure your town or one near you has similar. The world is made a better place by hearing Shakespeare spoken into the universe. I look forward to seeing what I can be a part of next year.

Ye, No.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to have celebrity impressionist Jim Ross Meskimen do some Shakespeare of my choosing. I knew exactly the voice and passage I wanted – Robin Williams as Prospero doing “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” It is quite breathtaking.

Unfortunately it was breathtaking for all the wrong reasons for long-time reader JM who, aghast, returned to comment, “It’s yea, not ye. Ye is a pronoun, (you) Yea is affirmation, or ‘yes’. I have no idea why he didn’t know that.” Such a small thing, and yet I can only imagine to someone more versed (ha!) in the verse than I, it would be like hearing someone say “all intensive purposes” or worse, “could of.”

Thing is, Jim didn’t make the mistake, I did. I copied the text for him. I rushed to the source I used – MIT’s version (people smarter than I see where this is going). I checked Open Source Shakespeare. Same problem. I checked the actual First Folio (with JM’s link), and there it is, the right way:

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-capped 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.

The problem is that both MIT and Open Source Shakespeare are based on the Moby Shakespeare, a public domain version of the complete works that is (a) darned near ubiquitous (see “public domain”) but also (b) known to have substantial errors.

I know this. I guess I just always assumed that the errors were like very small needles in a very big haystack, and that they would simply never be an issue for me. That is not good thinking. I won’t say it wrecked my tribute to Robin Williams, but it sure tainted it. I wonder if Mr. Meskimen would make us another one? I’ll have to ask.

What other errors have you found propagated all over the internet because of Moby? Any really glaring ones? I know that Open Source Shakespeare actively updates their text to fix errors as they are reported, but I don’t believe MIT does (which would also no doubt be true of 99% of the other texts out there).

With Caliban Still Enslaved

A couple weeks ago on Twitter I had an interesting conversation about The Tempest and I’ve been meaning to post about it. A reader directed me to the poem Fuck / Shakespeare and I was left head scratching a bit at the ending:

Play ends / Cali still enslaved / Bruh / that shit fucked

My first thought was, “Is that really how it ends? That’s not how I remember it. Caliban gets the island. Prospero leaves. Sounds like freedom to me.”

Then I went back and looked at the text.

PROSPERO
He is as disproportion'd in his manners
As in his shape. Go, sirrah, to my cell;
Take with you your companions; as you look
To have my pardon, trim it handsomely.

CALIBAN
Ay, that I will; and I'll be wise hereafter
And seek for grace. What a thrice-double ass
Was I, to take this drunkard for a god
And worship this dull fool!

PROSPERO
Go to; away!

There is no moment of understanding between them. No “sorry for enslaving you, here, I’ll make it up to you by leaving and letting you have the island like you always wanted” exchange. Prospero’s last words to Caliban are, in fact, still those of master to slave.

I think my misunderstanding of the ending comes from two places. First, I’m visually thinking of Helen Mirren’s portrayal in Julie Taymor’s film version. If I recall that correctly, there is a clear moment (albeit in silence, since Shakespeare gave no words) that fills the need for what I wrote above.

The other is that I’ve just never really thought of The Tempest, my answer to “Which one is your favorite play?” in terms of slavery and racism and colonization. I love it as a story of fathers and children and forgiveness. That just goes to show just how good it is, that it can be both. You can read it as a happy ending fairy tale to your children about wizards and monsters and long lost princesses returning to their kingdoms. Or you can read it as a four hundred year old depiction of the darkest aspects of human behavior still on display to this day.

It’s given me a lot to think about. I’ve always known about those themes in the play, I’ve just never really focused on them, preferring instead to think of it as a positive book end to Shakespeare’s writing. Which is a bit ironic because in my modern reading I often chide books that wrap things up too nicely, and prefer those that give me something to think about and work on. If Caliban is forever enslaved because of what Prospero did, then how can we ever break the cycle?

Which ending do you prefer? Is Caliban free now to be king of the island? Or is he forever enslaved by what Prospero did to him, long after Prospero is gone?

A VR Tempest is Coming and I Want It.

I’ve been doing this blog for a long, long time. It’s been a natural crossover to look for ways that technology is used in innovative ways to tackle Shakespeare. We need to get back into more of that. I’ve been missing some good stuff.

An “Oculus” is a virtual reality headset. I know it as the Oculus Rift but I guess there are different models now. I think Facebook owns them. You’ve no doubt seen them, if even in a science fiction movie – you strap the goggles over your head, then the immersive experience that’s shown to you moves around as you do. I actually got to watch some Hamlet like this once, it’s pretty cool. My experience was only what they call a “360 video”, where you can’t move – you can only spin your head around like an owl. In a true VR setting you can actually move around.

https://www.engadget.com/the-under-presents-tempest-oculus-rift-view-225750213.html

So I’m trying to understand what this game / performance called The Under Presents is, but it sounds pretty neat. They’re doing The Tempest next, and it’s a live show – you need to get tickets.

The play will feature a single actor who, in the play’s narrative, was supposed to play Prospero in a proper stage show. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, their in-person performance was canceled.

I have no idea what’s actually going to happen within the show but I can see them taking the whole “These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits and Are melted into air, into thin air” thing in a whole new direction. I am imagine the actor as Prospero pointing his staff into blank space, conjuring up a Miranda or Ferdinand, and *poof* your headset comes to life, you are in the show, you are Ferdinand. Maybe you get a script? This is all technology, maybe it just goes ahead and walks and talks for you, driving you like auto pilot and you’re just along for the ride. I can think of all kinds of crazy things that might happen.

Anybody out there got one of these headsets and can spend the couple of bucks to check it out?

Guest Post : Shakespeare’s Travels

Scotland – the famous setting for Macbeth

Should you ever decide to embark on a tour of the locations of Shakespeare’s plays you’d find yourself with a long itinerary. The bard’s quill pen roamed the world, from Egypt and Syria to Scotland – this blog has even provided a handy map. Some places, such as England and Italy, were, of course, frequently visited by his imagination. Others, such as Austria (Measure for Measure) and Cyprus (Othello) he only visited once.

Shakespeare shaped these foreign lands to suit his stories. Greece (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Timon of Athens, The Two Noble Kinsmen, etc.), Wales (Cymbeline, Richard II, Henry IV P1) and Turkey (The Comedy of Errors, Troilus & Cressida, etc.) were made the settings for comedy, tragedy, romance, and history. The world truly was his stage to dress – in fact, most of his plays are set abroad, the Globe Theatre, therefore, becoming an actual microcosm of our globe.

Some locations are famously linked with his plays. Who, after all, would not know that Hamlet is set in Denmark? Other links are, perhaps, a little more obscure. Lebanon featuring in Pericles, for example, or the former Yugoslavia (specifically, the area known as Illyria) in Twelfth Night.

Dubrovnik, once the centre of the Republic of Ragusa in the ancient region of Illyria

Are visitors to Spain’s Basque Country aware that they’re following in the footsteps of the characters in Love’s Labour’s Lost? The location of the French court in All’s Well That Ends Well is a little unclear, but it isn’t hard to imagine Helena and Bertram amidst the grand buildings of Carcassonne. I’m also a fan of the vague Mediterranean setting of The Tempest, which allows me to imagine Prospero roaming Malta, or Menorca, or perhaps Sardinia.

The Great Pyramid of Giza, famous even in Shakespeare’s day

How did Shakespeare know about these far-flung places? As the No Sweat Shakespeare blog once mentioned, even travel between Stratford-Upon-Avon and London was no mean feat. Shakespeare, therefore, didn’t have direct experience of these locations – it was 40 years after Shakespeare’s death when The Grand Tour made foreign travel popular amongst the English elite. Instead he took inspiration from historical texts and other stories (including Italian novellas) – Egypt, for example, has always been well-known to the western world and descriptions of its ancient sites would not have been hard to come by.

The world’s mine oyster, which I with sword will open” – the world isn’t currently our oyster to open, but with Shakespeare’s stages on shores near and distant, perhaps we can, for now, take a little peek and plan for the day when we follow the footsteps of his far-flung characters.

Olly loves to travel and has visited over 80 countries and all 7 continents. He also likes to explore the world through the medium of literature and enjoys matching famous locations with the places he’s been to. Olly runs travel planning blog APlanToGo.com, on which you can download free, highly detailed itineraries for destinations across the globe.