Fırtına: A Turkish Tempest. Directed by Kemal Aydoğan and translated by Emine Ayhan at the Moda Sahnesi Theatre, Istanbul, Turkey
Reviewed by Anna Carleton Forrester, University of Georgia
Kemal Aydoğan’s Fırtına, an adaptation of The Tempest, was one of two Shakespeare plays scheduled for the Istanbul Theatre Festival (November 13-26), and will continue its run at the Moda Sahnesi Theatre through February 2018. However, after the Schaubühne company, citing security and safety concerns, cancelled their travel to Istanbul and performance of Richard III one week before the start of the festival, it became the single production. In English, “Fırtına” translates literally to “Storm,” and, in this performance, the director imagines a “happy and livable world” and “wholesome society” where destruction and conflict are contained (see Aydoğan’s commentary and the festival catalogue here in both English and Turkish). It is a comparatively light-hearted take on a play that can be weighted down with its themes of enslavement, servitude, colonization, rape, etc. We might credit the optimism of this production to the ability for it to be staged at all; for in the aftermath of the 15 July 2016 coup attempt, a brief ban on foreign plays intended to censor Shakespeare, among other foreign playwrights, from being performed in Turkey. The Moda Sahnesi’s production of Fırtına demonstrates how alive and cherished Shakespeare—and his plays—are in the country; the vitality and versatility of text and performance in translation; and the ability to see, perform, and understand the play anew in different political and cultural contexts.
In intimate black box-style, the Moda Sahnesi theatre has two opposite blocks of seating that angle downward towards the playing space. Mounted on each of the two adjacent walls are circular projection screens that, in Fırtına, show identical and synchronized content. Before the play begins, a floating iris of a cat-like eye against a white background occupies each screen, and once the play begins, each projects the storm named for the play. A fixated Prospero and upset Miranda look on, while images of struggling mariners and a digitized sinking ship convey the storm’s destruction at a distance.
These screens become important offsets of the playing space, especially for Prospero’s airy sprite. A camera situated atop the actor’s head live streams Ariel’s mischief-making, and features victims looking on—or more accurately, looking past, the actor. Broadcasting this point of view does well to reinforce Ariel’s non-physical presence (since it is clear the actors see nothing) and the character’s non-human qualities. In this performance, Ariel is not only a spirit, but a cyborg that speeds around (quite skillfully) on rollerblades—unseen, and all-seeing, nowhere and everywhere. In 3.2, the spirit goes on to provoke Stephano and Caliban in Trinculo’s voice by way of these screens, and, at the play’s end, these portals are used again as the discovery space to reveal Miranda and Ferdinand playing chess. In this tempest, there is no slippery space for talking about what or who Ariel is, nor are we made to consider Ariel as anything other the non-human spirit-cyborg of the performance. And although Ariel is played by a woman, Selen Şeşen, the tendency for viewers to humanize Ariel based on the gender assignment or identification of the actor isn’t as readily available in this performance, because of the single, non-gendered third-person Turkish pronoun, “O.” Whether or not one enjoys the experimental approach, it is hard to argue against Ariel’s success. And we should credit that success to the text and performance in translation, the idiosyncrasies that come along with that process, and the creative agents that power them.
The portrayal of Caliban seems less successful, especially given the degree of thoughtfulness directed to other aspects of the performance. While the question of his identity stays intact—he is referred to several times as a “balık” (fish), an “insan” (human) and “yaratık” (creature)—the choice to keep the actor bare-bodied, adorned only in a loincloth is an unfortunate cop-out, as it seems to mark him as solely, if not stereotypically, “native.” The representational and presentational lack of his other “fishy” or “creaturely” identities keeps curiosities about his character—like parentage or servitude—from becoming anything more than observations. We are not moved to curiosity about his role in the history of the isle; to rage at the report of his attempted rape of Miranda; to sympathy because of his enslavement under Prospero. If the play’s interpretation and translation of Ariel is especially interesting for the resolution of conflicts often posed by the character in performance, we might say that the portrayal of Caliban is less successful for avoiding conflict altogether.
When Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban enter Prospero’s cell to steal his books and strip him of power, the former two’s preoccupation with the robes the sorcerer has hung as a distraction turns into a tangential fashion show. The robes themselves are not what one would expect of the white-robed sorcerer of this play. Renaissance and mid-19th century attire, Nazi uniforms, women’s and men’s suits, a reddish-blonde wig and red tie are modeled by Stephano and Trinculo while an image and video montage of Elizabeth I, Napoleon, Hitler, Elizabeth II, Margaret Thatcher, George W. Bush, Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton, Angela Merkel and other political figures, past and present, projects on the screens with accompanying strobe lighting and a pulsing bass. The moment is a curious one—perhaps suggesting Prospero’s magical hand in the appointment of these individuals, their governing, grouping him in their company (after all, they are supposed to be his robes), or something else entirely. Regardless of the interpretation, it is hard to miss the absence of Turkey’s President from the montage; but, in a move of strategic and subtle criticism, his often-worn blue pin-striped election blazer is picked up and discarded in disgust, met with a rupture of laughs and applause from the audience.
At the performance’s end, the haunting, cat-like eyes that lingered on the two screens before the performance fill the sockets of an undead Shakespeare (image pictured above, also used for promotional purposes). He overlooks the performance space, and, suggestively, has been there all along. The appearance comes in tandem with a closing musical number, where the actors sing in unison, “Shakespeare’in hayırduası eksik olmasın üstünüzden,” roughly translating to, “May the blessings of Shakespeare be upon you.” In Fırtına we see a brand of expression that exists in many of Turkey’s artistic communities today—a kind that is careful, optimistic, and intentional; where the decision to stage performances at all comes at the expense of controlling certain commentaries; and where some of those commentaries are tried on and cast off as quickly as one would with a robe, not because of indifference, but for the sake of survival.
For more information, or to purchase tickets, please visit: http://www.modasahnesi.com/firtina
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
Reviewing Shakespeare is produced by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the University of Warwick to provide a searchable archive of independent reviews of worldwide Shakespearian performance.