The play began with a washing machine, a stage strewn with garments, and a shaking sail made of clothes woven together. This fabric-heavy vision guided costumes and scenery alike.
Ariel, of course, offered a laundry detergent joke, though her real form resembled a creature who appeared to be a cross between an oopa-loompa and Thing 1 and Thing 2 from The Cat in the Hat.She was both colourful and versatile, and the washing-line like backdrop was pulled and tugged to give her wings later during the harpy scene.
It was clear this production had given careful consideration to how day-to-day life on the island had been for Prospero and his daughter over the last 10 years. The coat Prospero sported for make-shift trousers for instance, or Miranda’s dress made of ties, drew our attention to the material poverty in which both must have had to live. A point I wouldn’t normally have considered when watching or reading the play. The layering and simple magnitude of the clothing-cum-set was striking, layers were raised to change the scene for Caliban’s cave for instance while characters emerged and retreated into the fabrics. The dichotomy between island inhabitants and shipwrecked survivors was made clear in the ragged vs. clean white costumes of the two parties. In a powerful and understated conclusion Prospero retreated into the very fabric of the vision the play had created; camouflaged he and the environment became one as the lights fell and the play ended. This was not simply playing into the sense that Prospero is soon to die as he utters his final words, though that suggestion was certainly there, but rather it served to emphasise the fictionality and theatricality of the vision, and its master, which had been played before us that evening.
There is however, a further dimension to this fabric-laden design. At once highlighting the omnipotence of Prospero. The material is such that his face would appear from within piles of clothes and his exertion of power was evident. But more than this, there was a dystopic element which the set uncovered. Of course with the lines of The Tempest giving the title to the famous dystopian vision of Huxley’s A Brave New World, this is not entirely surprising. But the way it was orchestrated in Improbable’s production offered a new reading of the play. This was made primarily of two elements: control (which I will return to) and materiality. It appeared that the play was also offering a commentary on our materialistic society. The masque showed this most overtly.
The spirits were creature made from plastic bottle costumes and plastic bags (at which I wondered to myself how much that costume would now cost, at 5p a bag..).
The vision was at once familiar and distant, as the trash filled stage opened into a vision of beauty, a sense that magic ran through the mundane. It is certainly in keeping with the set that the sprites should be attired thus but it also serves to emphasise the disjunction between Prospero’s crafted world and the world of reality from which the sailors have been flung. Even his staff is made of an old broom and sieve. The embodiment perhaps of ‘rough magic’. This alien meets familiarity in terms of costumes and the island leads to the suggestion that magical beauty and independence built on the scraps of society must remain in the most part secret and beyond the bounds of ‘civilisation’. Like the rats of many animated films, beauty can be made from castoffs but ultimately the castaways return to society. This production raises this element of the play, but not as a full-blown critical commentary.
The other crucial element I mentioned was control. I’ve seen a couple of productions of The Tempest on stage prior to this one (both of which also involved spitting – it’s almost as though Shakespeare scripted spitting Caliban!). There are of course several options when considering Prospero. I’ve seen two which go firmly for the benevolent, all round nice-guy Prospero. The daddy magician. A kind of cuddly coloniser. Then there’s the other option. The route chosen by Improbable. The powerful magician who isn’t as nice as his run-down appearance might leave you to believe. In fact his wielding of power in this play was at times alarming. Prospero was certainly troubling.
As he punished and controlled, his power was decidedly sinister. His voice rose, anger filled it and the tone was dark and dangerous. He choked creatures like Caliban and Ferdinand in ways which marked him almost as an apprentice to Darth Vader. But what really struck me was the way his power appeared to be uncontrolled. As he tortured Ariel or Caliban, Miranda’s body contorted and was affected in tandem. He appeared unable to truly get a handle on his power. Worse still he didn’t even seem to notice the way his power affected his daughter. Although after each power-hungry episode Prospero did appear more humble and occasionally repentant the Prospero of this Tempest clearly used his power in ways closer to brutality than beauty. It was a troubling journey to the happy-ever-after ending.
The music, which particularly in a play like The Tempest is integral, was cleverly crafted. Strange noises filled the island as wine glasses full of different amounts of water were played, drums were scratched, and a xylophone could often be heard. Caliban’s music which began as bangs and groans and, like Trinculo, I wanted to put my fingers in my ears, thankfully it gradually became more beautiful (thankfully, because I always feel like poor Caliban, side-lined as a slave, has lines which sing of musicality).
Trinculo and Stephano were suitably ridiculous, Antonio was clearly still a nasty piece of work and Gonzalo appeared as an idealistic optimist. Miranda seemed to spend a lot of time sticking her bottom lip out in a grump, but thankfully the sulky child got her way (or more accurately, her Father’s way) in the end and secured her Prince. A challenging, dark, and fabric filled play. Improbable’s take on The Tempest offered interesting readings on the play, characters, and our society alike.
– A Northern Stage and Improbable Production of The Tempest at Oxford Playhouse, October 2015.