Director’s Notes: The imperfections of man & the limits of reason
Shakespeare wrote The Tempest in London in the early 17th Century. He tells the story of Prospero and other nobility who are at war with one another. It is a tale of perfidy and usurpation. He sets this story in, what was for him, contemporary Italy. This makes sense, considering the fractious war-like history of the Italian city-states at that time.
But where might we set his tale, so that our audience can have the same immediate understanding of turbulent times as Shakespeare’s audience did?
In the play the evildoers go to Africa to attend a wedding, and afterward pass by Prospero’s island where he sets the tempestuous seas upon their ship.
Well, why not see what it would be like the other way round!
Let’s have the evil doers set off from Africa at the start, and let the tempest strike them upon their return.
If this seems a strange thing to do to Shakespeare’s play, consider this: If everyone in The Tempest is Italian, why are they all speaking English? Shakespeare is already asking us to stretch our collective imagination!
In her recent The Challenge for Africa, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai refers to the cultural deracination that befell Africa, and the need to support “micro-nationalism” to create a renewed sense of continental understanding and political ethos. She was born in Kenya, and is the founder of the Green Belt Movement, an organization focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation, and women's rights.
There is something in the woods. But when the woods are all cut down, what happens? Perhaps the seedlings can still grow, and the music of the forest can return.
Who is Sycorax?
In The Tempest Shakespeare tells us that years before the start of the story, the evil witch Sycorax lived on the island. She is the mother of the half-man half-beast unrepentant Caliban, and her power was so strong that she “could control the moon.” Critics agree that this “blue-eyed hag” was not based on any source save Shakespeare’s imagination. Yet this production has someone particular in mind:
Imbued in the poetry of The Tempest is more musical imagery than any of Shakespeare’s other plays. Music affects us in unknowable ways. In fact Oliver Saks, the famous modern neurologist, just wrote the best seller Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. It is a work of non-fiction; yet it is filled with stories much stranger than fiction. By immersing his language in music, Shakespeare is summoning us to a strange mystical force that lives deep in the unknowns of the island, something deep in our own minds.Prospero is a very smart, well-read man, but he was blindsided by his brother’s evil desire. How did he miss it? The articulate Prince Ferdinand finds himself amazed at being tongue-tied when he meets Miranda: “My language! Heavens!” Yet considering that Elizabethans thought language to be the highest faculty of humanity, how could he have lost his mind? And what happens to the mighty Alonso that Gonzalo must exclaim, “I’ the name of something holy, sir, why stand you/ In this strange stare”?
There is something strange and wondrous in The Tempest - something that cannot only dilute reason, but augment it. Without it Prospero would never find a way to humble Alonso, nor quell his own wrathful desire for revenge. It is the same potent, natural force that can transform with a thunderbolt a verdant valley into a raging fire, or, within the mutable seas, convert a sunken warship into a vibrant coral home for guppies.
On December 9, 2009, President Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. He ended his speech with a plea for us all not only to accept the unavoidable contradictions of being human, but to also embrace them- so that we might make possible, the impossible: "...we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected."
For Prospero, he must accept that a man, such as Caliban, will never change; but reasonable assume, that someday, he could.