De Storm @ Het Nationale Toneel, Utrecht, Netherlands, 2014Comedy

  • Paul Franssen
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De Storm (The Tempest), directed by Johan Doesburg, Het Nationale Toneel, Stadsschouwburg Utrecht, the Netherlands, 11 March 2014.

Review by Paul Franssen (Utrecht University)

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© Het Nationale Toneel

Based on a modern translation by Frank Albers, this performance looked somewhat Brechtian in foregrounding its own theatricality. After the storm, some of the castaways (Antonio, Alonso, Gonzalo) remained on stage, and whenever they were mentioned in Prospero’s narrative to Miranda, he introduced them, by making them step forward. Indeed, the Prospero we saw here was very much involved in staging and directing ‘his’ play throughout, applying white make-up to Caliban’s face at one moment, and telling Sebastian to repeat a speech that he felt was not altogether convincing at another. During the tempest scene, Prospero sat on a chair on the forestage, and abruptly ended the stroboscopic light effects and the loud wind sounds by a single knock on the floor with his magic wand. That wand had become so much a part of his life that he used it as his walking stick.

Yet this was not simply a return to the view of Prospero as a self-portrait of Shakespeare, the gifted magician of the stage. This Prospero used his powers for a darker purpose: to manipulate the other characters, and to avenge himself. The hesitant way the actor, Mark Rietman, pronounced his text suggested a disturbed personality, who lacked the self-assurance and dignity of more traditional Prosperos. He even manipulated Miranda, magically sending her to sleep when she began to ask awkward questions about the shipwreck. His altercation with his (female) Ariel in 1.2 ended in her doing his bidding not because she was convinced he was right, but because she could not resist his magical powers.

Most of all, Prospero delighted in torturing his enemies. The disappearing banquet of 3.3 was followed by the entrance of Ariel as an SM dominatrix, in a dark cat-like dress, speaking in a man’s voice, and physically hurting the courtiers, as well as emotionally upsetting them. Alonso was so off-balance that he half spoke, half bellowed his last monologue in that scene. Surprisingly, the climax of Prospero’s revenge came only in 5.1, after he had promised Ariel to abandon his scheme and renounce his magic. The four main courtiers, Gonzalo, Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian, were pushed in, standing on top of a table on caster wheels. They were in a trance, and their upper bodies were naked. Four nooses appeared from above, and Ariel put these around the necks of all but Gonzalo. The prisoners then mimed playing musical instruments, in this posture of awaiting execution, while Ariel sang ‘Where the bee sucks’. They seemed like marionettes in Prospero’s hand, looking the more lugubrious for the fact that Alonso had a bloody wound on his bald pate. Prospero removed Alonso’s noose, as a token of forgiveness, but then pushed away the table, so that Antonio and Sebastian feared for one split second that they would hang after all. The nooses were not firmly attached to the ceiling, however, and fell down, so that the whole turned out to be a mock execution.

For all his control over his victims, Prospero clearly was not in control of his own anger. When he had forgiven Antonio, with the latter showing very little remorse, only patting his brother’s back in comradely fashion, Prospero demanded his dukedom back in an aggressive shout. Yet by now he had dismissed Ariel, and his magical powers had disappeared. The play’s ending stressed Prospero’s loneliness, resulting from his manipulation of others throughout. When he said ‘please you, draw near’ (5.1.319), the other players all moved away from him, upstage, and two doors with mirroring surfaces closed behind them. Caliban was visible longest between the doors, as if he was in doubt whether he should help his master after all. Prospero remained behind alone, facing his own reflections in the mirrors. He turned around to the audience and spoke the epilogue. His inability to really give up his powers and his persistence in punishing his enemies had caused him to be totally isolated from others.

Although the play revolved around Prospero, some attention was also drawn by the two female characters, Miranda and Ariel. This Miranda was not Prospero’s sweet and obedient daughter, but a girl raised in isolation, and therefore not socialised. She was innocent, as her white shift suggested, in the sense of being naïve, but far from coy. She was very direct in her speech, and did not try to hide her emotions or desires. When she first saw Ferdinand, she smelled his armpit, like a dog, and offered her own armpit to him in return. He tried to communicate with signs and sounds one might make to attract a pet, until he found out that she spoke his language. Throughout the rest of the play, she was very physical with Ferdinand, sitting on top of him, until she remembered that her father had forbidden such behaviour. Prospero was occasionally obliged to part them, and his speech in praise of prenuptial abstinence, delivered with a great deal of aggression towards Ferdinand in particular, did not come altogether unexpected.

Ariel’s gender in Shakespeare’s text is not entirely clear, but the part has often been played by women, as it was here. Ariel was the perfect secretary, who performed whatever the boss wished with the utmost efficiency, while always looking her best. At first she was dressed in a blue stewardess’s outfit, swerving over the stage on a trolley scooter; later, she appeared as a sea nymph, wearing a green bathing suit and roller skates. But as her patience wore thin, she started to look less glamorous and presentable, chewing gum while on the job. When finally released from her work by Prospero, she took off her peroxide blonde wig, and seemed happy to escape from her demanding employer.

All in all, this chilling production stressed Prospero’s obsession with revenge. At times, it was as if the storm took place inside his head, and the entire plot was his fantasy of getting his own back on his enemies. The abstract stage design, using a fairly bare stage with many mirrors that could be turned in several directions, created a dream-like atmosphere.

Paul Franssen

Author: Paul Franssen

Paul Franssen (1955) teaches at the English Department of Utrecht University. His main research and teaching interests are Shakespeare and the early modern period, South African Literature, Jane Austen, and Oscar Wilde. He has co-edited a few books on Shakespearean matters, and is the author of Shakespeare’s Literary Lives: The Author as Character in Fiction and Film (Cambridge University Press, 2016). www.cambridge.org/9781107125612
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