"Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows." Act II, scene ii
|The Baxter Theatre Centre and the Royal Shakespeare Company ; February 20, 2009 Stratford upon Avon, UK|
Director : Janice Honeyman ; Starring :
Reviewed on : 2009-02-23 11:26:14 ; Reviewed by : Coen Heijes
|The multiple faces of (post-) colonialism.
The last twenty lines of The Tempest are spoken by Prospero. They are an epilogue in which he asks the audience both for applause and for forgiveness in order to set him, the actor, free. The stage directions indicate that Prospero is by now alone on stage, all the other characters having left in the course of scene 5.1. In this production, however, Caliban re-appears on stage during the epilogue and confronts Prospero centre stage in a tête-à-tête as Prospero speaks his last two lines: “As you from crimes would pardoned be, / Let your indulgence set me free” (Epilogue 19-20). As Prospero leaves the stage, Caliban, throwing off the two crutches he has been leaning on all through the performance, is the last visual image before the lights black out.
It is a tantalizing end to this production: in what ways is Caliban to set Prospero free? What kind of indulgence does Prospero ask for? What role-reversal is taking place and why? It is also a fitting end, seeing that the production focuses to a large extent on the relation between Caliban and Prospero and builds on the (post-) colonial interpretation of The Tempest. Prospero is played by Antony Sher and Caliban by John Kani, (both multiple award-winning actors), in this production by an all South-African cast, and directed by the South-African Janice Honeyman as a co-production between the RSC and South Africa's Baxter Theatre Centre.
Caliban in this production is not portrayed as a barbarian or of monstrous appearance, but is set down as a rather dignified, if slightly bitter and resentful, older man, which is no doubt strengthened by the excellent and controlled acting of John Kani. He walks with two crutches, bowed down somewhat and is dressed much like Prospero when he is wearing his magical garment. As this grey-haired actor speaks the lines “This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother, / Which thou tak’st from me”, he radiates a quiet and almost formal dignity, making slow and wide movements with his arms underlining the expression of a justified anger. In this, their first confrontation, Prospero has taken off his mantle, wearing underneath white clothes and putting on a white straw hat, thereby enhancing the colour difference with Caliban. As Prospero kicks away one of Caliban’s crutches, causing Caliban to fall over, and as Miranda, played in a fresh, natural and almost animal-like fashion by Tinarie van Wyk Loots, speaks of “thy vile race”, one cannot help but pity this Caliban and desire his freedom.
This word - ‘freedom’ - is among the last shouted by Caliban in a wild and exotic dance with Trinculo and Stephano and some spirits. It is the last visual image before the interval, played to the fortissimo sounds of drums and cymbals in which Caliban throws away his crutches. The freedom cries of Caliban are thus followed by the interval applause of the audience, just as after the epilogue the freedom cries of Caliban are the last visual image for the audience. However, Caliban’s freedom cries are tainted both by his connection to the two drunkards and by the chasm there is between Caliban and the African spirits surrounding him. His freedom cries at the end follow upon scene 5.1, in which he much resembles Malvolio of Twelfth Night as Prospero sends him away. Amidst the reunions, the feasting, and the forgiveness, Caliban radiates controlled anger and resentment against those who have tortured and deceived him throughout the play. The grudge, the anger, and the hatred throw a wet blanket over the joys of the kings and the nobles, and fit the colonial interpretation of The Tempest.
However, this production also presents another approach to colonialism in the relation between Prospero and Ariel, played by the physically strong and impressive Atandwa Kani. Contrasted in many ways to Caliban, this character is not dressed in clothes, but only bears a loin-cloth. His body is painted all over with white stripes and where Caliban was crippled and bent down, Ariel radiates a strong, self-assured and very physical presence. There is nothing airy about this Ariel and the spirits that accompany him throughout the production use African language and are dressed in a wide variety of exuberant, African clothes, both earthly-coloured and in very vivid colours such as red, yellow and green. The music that accompanies them is African-based and the excellent puppeteers create a whole series of masked and fantastical creatures, such as serpent-like monsters, reflecting according to the programme notes the forces of nature in Zulu cosmology.
Just as Caliban, Ariel is also a servant of Prospero and in their first confrontation, when Ariel questions Prospero about his promise of freedom, Prospero throws Ariel down on the floor and stands above him in a visual image of total oppression. However, the difference between Caliban and Ariel could not be bigger as Ariel shows a strong confidence in himself and in Prospero and as Ariel is much more part of the natural, African background of the spirits than Caliban is, who seems to have been transformed by his confrontations with Prospero. As the spirits first encounter King Alonso, they mimic his signing of the cross in a way that shows the chasm between the two cultures. What to Alonso, his compatriots and Prospero, who all use the Catholic signing, is a logical part of their identity, is to Ariel and the African spirits no more than an odd way of moving one’s hand in front of one’s body. Compared to the dynamics, the power, and the natural joy that Ariel and his spirits radiate, the (in itself dignified) anger of Caliban, turns somewhat into a grumpy, old man at times. The dignity of Caliban is streaked with sadness and viciousness, his freedom is tainted with a grudge, marking him still a slave to the past.
Finally, Prospero throws water on Ariel in a kind of baptism ritual as he releases him, in a scene where they are both visibly touched by the mutual bond they shared. Tainted though it was by slavery, a mutual liking and respect grew between them. The past is there and it is not something they can undo, but Ariel’s freedom runs deeper than Caliban’s. On leaving Prospero, Ariel also shouts freedom, but as opposed to Caliban his is a cry of power, the cry of a man assured about his role in the world. Colonialism and its aftermath take many faces and many directions in this strong and exciting production and Prospero’s final line, “Let your indulgence set me free”, resonates the importance of the past which one cannot undo and which will continue to throw its shadow over the present, while at the same time imploring one to move beyond it.
Matthew William Peters, 1741-1814
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