7 May 2012
As I left the Globe on Monday night, my first thought was ‘Well, it’s The Tempest, Chris, but not as you know it’. I have spent a good many years researching productions of the play over the past 400+ years, particularly in English-speaking countries, and exploring the ways in which it can reveal, worry at, validate, and challenge contemporary cultural, political, and social concerns. It has been made a vehicle to celebrate or condemn colonialism, to endorse or contest gender ideology, to display the magic of theatre or to mine the human condition via the magician Prospero, who might struggle to forgive or find it easy, be confident or inadequate in his interactions with others, revel in his magic powers or give them up with relief. But this Tempest was none of these: there was no post-colonial angst, no metatheatrical framing of the play, no fraught power relationships to get your teeth into – it was, simply, fun: a colourful, vibrant, good-natured, and exuberant celebration of Bangla culture, which its audience thoroughly enjoyed.
The stage setting gave a clue about what was to follow. Very colourful painted boxes, showing images ranging from ships to dinosaurs, were arranged in a multilevel semicircle towards the front of the stage; a helpful member of the audience told me they resembled the paintings seen on rickshaws.* The Globe’s three doors were covered by large, similarly painted cloths, all of them showing ships at sea, their bowsprit figureheads like cartoon faces: the one nearest me, over the stage right door, had a big red nose and a generic goddess floating above, a winged horse with a female face. More than anything else, that clownish feature, together with the beneficent-looking deity presiding over it, suggested the tack the story would take.
The play began as the thirteen actor-musician-singers entered and each picked up one of the painted boxes by its handle; retreating to the back of the stage, they sat cross-legged on red and blue rugs in front of their now opened boxes, which contained props and instruments. The storm began as one of the actors lifted the conch shell set downstage centre and blew a long note on it; then five dancers with small white ships on their wristbands gracefully danced the storm. Leading them was a female figure draped in a floor-length flimsy blue veil, who might have been the sea but was in fact Ariel: a nice conflation of identities in this scene.
The publicity for the show noted that it featured ‘Manipuri folk dance from Bangladesh along with traditional Bangladeshi folk songs’.** Prospero sang as well as spoke some of his exposition in 1.2, the folk song sounding as cheery as the dancing had been graceful. Ariel’s entrance in 1.2 was preceded by a fantastic display of drumming by the company’s two drummers (who also gave a rousing end to the play’s first half, after 2.2). What I found interesting in the Prospero-Ariel interaction was that the magician seemed to be in thrall to the spirit, dancing to Ariel’s beat, rather than vice versa. Prospero did, however, ‘torment’ Ariel with the memory of Sycorax, doing two huge circular jumps, forcing Ariel to perform four of the same jumps in unison, an athletic display that elicited the evening’s first round of applause. It became clear as the play progressed (for instance, in his interaction with Ferdinand) that Prospero performed his magic via these circular jumps.
Prospero’s interaction with Caliban was equally intriguing: this servant was in no way monstrous, either in form or behaviour. He smilingly sang a song after entering in 1.2, with Prospero looking perplexed rather than angry. In fact, there was a marked absence of anything threatening in this Tempest: the lordly conspirators were ineffectual and comic, while the antics of Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano inspired the audience to happily clap them off-stage in time to their dance in 2.2.
The usual set-pieces of the play were notable by their absence or transformation. Three spirits presented the ‘banquet’ in the form of food painted onto two-dimensional leaves held in each hand: while I expected the spirits to clap their hands together to make it ‘disappear’, they instead simply walked away from the hungry lords. The masque presented the literal marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand, with the couple exchanging necklaces of flowers to audience applause. The most surprising part of the production was the end, with Prospero handing Caliban the conch shell along with the ‘rule of the island’, as the surtitle proclaimed. The final image of the play was that of a beaming Caliban, wreathed with flowers, standing on a pile of boxes while the rest of the company danced around him to the beat of the exuberant drums. In this production, it felt not just moving, but right.
Professor Christine Dymkowski
Professor of Drama and Theatre History
Royal Holloway, University of London
*For fuller explanations and examples of rickshaw art, see http://www.banglapedia.org/httpdocs/HT/R_0201.HTM, http://rrasheeka.wordpress.com/category/rickshaw-paintings/ , and http://www.bengalart.ch/rickshaws_engl.htm.
** http://globetoglobe.shakespearesglobe.com/plays/the-tempest/english-103. Banglapedia, the online ‘National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh’, notes that ‘Manipuri dance is characterised by its lashya (gentleness), tenderness, and devotion’ (http://www.banglapedia.org/httpdocs/HT/M_0135.HTM).