"Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows." Act II, scene ii
|Theater Freiburg ; April 4, 2009 Freiburg, Germany|
Director : Jarg Pataki ; Starring : Johanna Eiworth, Anna Wiesemeier, Vanessa Valk (Ariel), Uta Krause (Prospero), Thomas Mehlhorn (Caliban), Andreas Helgi Schmid (Ferdinand), Charlotte Müller (Miranda), Martin Weigel (Stephano), Albert Friedl (Sebastian
Reviewed on : 2009-05-26 23:27:19 ; Reviewed by : Annett Baumast
|In the German-speaking theatres, actors and actresses hardly ever understudy. This means that if somebody gets seriously ill, a performance is either cancelled or "enhanced" by temporary staff such as drama students or assistant directors. So if a performance is not cancelled straight away, it is usually a sign of someone unexpected in the cast if somebody in street wear appears on or in front of the stage before a performance. Tonight’s performance of The Tempest at the Theater Freiburg commenced with exactly such an announcement: due to an injury that the actor playing Caliban incurred the previous day, he would play tonight’s performance with a leg braced and therefore stiff. Due to this immobilisation, he would not be able to play all the scenes as planned. What a relief! We wouldn’t have to make do with a light board operator on stage, textbook in hand, which has all happened before….
Despite the injury having occurred the previous day, Caliban’s stiffening was permanently referenced by the other actors, making it the running gag of the night and wonderful to behold the joy of the players when they are allowed to obviously improvise. When Miranda first spoke of him, she changed her lines to "'Tis a villain, mother, with an artificially stiffened leg." (I.2) and when Stephano mentioned him, he described Caliban, the only man on stage who wears a contemporary suit and tie, as "This is some monster of the isle with an artificially stiffened leg." (II.2). For the more physical scenes, when Stephano (on his own because Trinculo was cut from the cast) makes Caliban drink alcohol for the first time in his life, a lifesize puppet is used, which gets kicked around by Stephano with Caliban making the according noises. The relationship between the two bears obvious homosexual undertones and perhaps for once the actor playing Caliban is glad that not he but the puppet has to give head when Stephano lowers his pants (and no, this is not a figure of speech). After the interval, when Caliban and Stephano return to put into practice their plan to kill Prospero, they enter through the stalls’ doors, entirely covered in mud, playing in the stalls between the audience. Stephano even gets up onto one of the seats, standing over a member of the audience, who gets rained with dust dropping from his mud-smeared body. Everybody takes it easy, though, and the audience is rewarded for their patience and good-will with a voucher for some sparkling wine as Caliban tells the audience.
It should also be mentioned that it is Stephano and Caliban who step outside their roles several times, for example by using their real first names, creating meta-theatrical situations that do not occur in the original text of The Tempest. It is difficult to say whether this is part of the original production or just an output of the leg situation. It serves the purpose to amuse the audience, however, and goes to show how fluent the boundaries between theatre and reality can sometimes be. This could, of course, be seen in the light of the discussion around Prospero representing Shakespeare and his good-bye from the stage.
But there was more to the performance than a stiffened Caliban. When entering the auditorium for the performance, we see a woman walking around on stage, which is originally a proscenium arch stage, turned into something like a thrust stage for this production. A square is placed transversely over the orchestra pit, with one of the edges pointing at the audience. It is covered by a camouflage net, simulating the shrubs of the island. Those uninformed about the performance might (mis-)take the red-haired woman on stage for Miranda but those who had already had a glimpse of the programme could easily guess that this must be Prospero, who is played by a woman in this production. Contrary to Stefan Pucher’s current Tempest at the Münchner Kammerspiele in Munich, however, she does not play as a man but as a woman, and words are changed accordingly in the text. Her outfit, a long green dress, and make-up (very white with very red cheeks), call to mind Elizabeth I, but as no further reference to her is made, the audience is left to draw their own conclusions.
One of the most remarkable features of this production, however, is its use of Jean Sibelius’ theatre music, which he composed specifically for The Tempest and which was first used for a stage production in 1926. The music is played by a live orchestra, which – contrary to their usual position in the orchestra pit – is placed at the back of the stage, with only a few heads and parts of instruments visible. The orchestra is supplemented by a choir as well as three soloists who sing some parts for Ariel, Stephano and Caliban. While some of the pieces neatly fit into the play, drawing a sometimes threatening musical landscape as a backdrop, others simply stop the action on stage without fulfilling any visible function and needing to be filled with mute action by the actors and actresses.
Ariel, who appears in a turquoise leotard and jumps around on stage like a goblin, in this production is not one but many. There are several puppets that appear in his (respectively her) stead, underlining the fairytale qualities of this production und visualising what Prospero refers to in IV.1: "Thou and thy meaner fellows your last service / Did worthily perform". The puppets usually appear during the musical intervals and take the shapes of mermaids, dragons and other fantastical beings. Ariel’s lightblue-grey hairstyle is also the model for the entire choir, which appears at the back of the stage under more camouflage netting.
The shipwrecked also deserve a mention, particularly because they are on stage much longer than everybody else. During the tempest, they have to shed their black and gold doublets and remain on stage with naked upper bodies, wearing black toby collars and black pants. When they are not part of a scene, they remain on stage, close together as a group, staying immobile and staring fixedly into one direction, eventually kicked around and teased by Ariel, who walks over them or pinches their noses. All of them wear the same white make-up with red cheeks, including Ferdinand who dutifully falls in love with Miranda, under the watchful eyes of her mother Prospero.
All in all, this Tempest is a well-rounded production with tonight’s highlight, of course, being Caliban’s leg. While it would have been interesting to see a performance without the stiffening, it was an unusual lesson in the art of improvisation and the actors’ and actresses’ joy in dealing with unexpected situation. A strong ensemble can, of course, rely on their long-formed relations to accept a challenge such as an immobile Caliban.
Matthew William Peters, 1741-1814
Near the Cell of Prospero
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