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March 8, 2010

In a Teapot

The version of The Tempest that is now playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music -- part of the Anglo-American "Bridge Project" directed by Sam Mendes -- has an excellent Prospero, and that is just about the only reason it is tolerable.

Given the general cluelessness of the acting, with line readings that are either unintelligible or downright silly, I suspect that Stephen Dillane arrived at his interpretation of his role with little or no directorial help. He has chosen to portray Prospero as a kind of world-weary, supernaturally inclined Beckett tramp, alternating between prolonged periods of reflectiveness and brief sudden rages. His delivery of Shakespeare's marvelous words is at once rueful and forceful, and his diction can be understood on every line, even when he whispers. It is a joy to hear him step forward with that final speech in which he asks to be freed from his imprisonment by the audience's applause; it is always a joy to hear this speech, if it is finely delivered, and in this case the request seems even more pointed than usual.
For the second time in my recent theater-going experience, the role of Caliban has been filled by a black actor -- in this case Ron Cephas Jones, the only African-American in the cast. I can guess why modern directors are making this choice (they have been reading recent literary theory, which sees The Tempest as recapitulating the period of exploration and colonization, and they want to make it clear that Prospero is the imperialist settler and Caliban the native), but it is a grave error. Listening to the white cast members hurl insults like "monster" and "this thing of darkness" at Caliban, or hearing them allude to his "race" as a reason for his misbehavior, we cringe in a very different way from how Shakespeare meant us to cringe. Even in the text, Prospero is so cruel to Caliban that we automatically feel sympathetic toward this unsightly and barbaric son-of-a-witch; but to cast him as African-American puts a thumb in the scale and distorts completely the reason for (as well as the natural ambivalence of) our sympathy.

It may have been a good idea to make Ariel a man, and Christian Camargo, with his delicate yet distinctly masculine features, fits the role nicely -- I have never seen it played that way before, and it gives a new twist to Prospero's and Ariel's relationship. But it was a mistake to costume the broad-shouldered, chisel-featured Camargo in a dress at one point: shades of Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot. This cannot have been what Sam Mendes intended. But who can tell what he intended? With its Euro-trash music (why can't the English, who have produced some of the best contemporary classical music, create good musical accompaniment for their Shakespeare productions?), its ineffectual slapstick in the "comic" parts, and its generally over-choreographed group scenes, this Tempest is a mess. I am not sorry to have seen it, because of Dillane, but you needn't be sorry if you missed it.
March 8, 2010 5:59 AM | | Comments (0)

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