400 years later, Shakespeare is still modern

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Candlelit and warm, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse transports its audience back to the Elizabethan Age, where lighting was little more than the will of the sun and strength of a fire. The cozy wooden benches that tower over the stage are the vehicles that take you through not one transportation, but two. First, you travel to the Elizabethan Age, then you are transported to an island as a storm ensues, opening the Shakespeare play, The Tempest.

King of the Isle, Prospero, has been exiled here with his daughter, Miranda, after being sent away from his principality, Milan, by his own brother Antonio, who sought to become duke. Now, years later, Prospero uses the magic he’s learned to manipulate Antonio and several men of nobility in order to return to Milan. He is aided by the sprite, Ariel, and a monster, Caliban, both enslaved at Prospero’s hand. A power struggle ensues. Prospero wishes to become Duke of Milan again, the king of Naples’ brother seeks the title for himself, and Caliban persuades the butler, Stephano to attempt to overthrow Prospero (although Caliban is the rightful owner of the island). It begs the question, who really deserves the role as “ruler”?

Themes of colonialism, power, and one’s place in society run throughout the entirety of the play. Before becoming too emotional or political, however, this production takes liberty with the subtle jokes within the writing. Stephano and Trinculo, (Trevor Fox and Dominic Rowan) the play’s comedic relief, go so far as to make references to modern day. Each night, their ad-libs are different, but not a single beat goes missing. Prospero, himself, takes part in the laughter by poking at naive Miranda and portraying an overprotective father.

Tim McMullan gives Prospero a commanding presence with his bass voice and strong gait. It is immediately understood why Ariel and Miranda obey him and Caliban fears him. He shows no tenderness towards anyone in the first act. Letting go of power hurts Prospero deeply and exposes another side of him. The power hinders him from making human connections. Once he does so, he forgives everyone who wronged him. The seemingly random gesture is made comprehensible by McMullan’s strong performance. The acting is so scary, however, that it is hard to sympathize with Prospero. After all, he has been betrayed by his own brother, left for dead on a deserted island with magical creatures with a toddler, and managed to survive. This is enough struggle to warrant the amount of resentment he holds for Antonio. There is no vulnerable, desperate side to him here, just a power-hungry despot.

The Tempest is credited as Shakespeare’s last solo script. Deception and performance, two major players in theatre, are vital aspects of the play’s dynamic. Characters are constantly lying to one another and they are all somewhat shrouded in Prospero’s grand deceit. Ariel and the sprites even go so far as to create an actual performance starring Greek gods and goddess. Then, Prospero’s moving words “Let your indulgence set me free” completely break the fourth wall. As Prospero speaks, the distinction between actor and character becomes blurred. Stoic Prospero has suddenly become aware of his own theatricality in creating an entire storm and manipulating people to no end. While this may seem jarring to some audience members, those who have never fully given into the deception of the production see it differently.

A play is really nothing, but made up people with fictional feelings. This version of The Tempest makes no serious attempt to hide the lies. Ropes and harnesses do the job without being hidden, characters emerge from in the audience and the comedians make references to to things Shakespeare couldn’t have imagined, like “kung-fu ewok” (in reference to Caliban) and “Jubilee line!” while discussing a hanging line. Prospero’s quite modern, metatheatrical pleas to release him by applauding his performance (both fictional and actual) applies to every single person who created the lie. It takes work to web a believable lie, on stage or off. The least one could do is respect the process.

The Tempest at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe opened on April 17.

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