The Tempest; directed by Maja Kleczewska for Teatr Polski in Bydgoszcz, Poland, 4 February 2012.
Reviewed by Paweł Schreiber
The despot’s home
In Maja Kleczewska’s staging of The Tempest, there is no island. It is substituted with a monstrously large, dilapidated room, filled with the detritus of years of family life – a random assortment of clothes, old toys and furniture that has seen better days. The lack of a sea separating this space from the rest of the world does not matter – under the rule of Prospero (Michał Jarmicki), it is as isolated from the outside as a desert island. In this particular Tempest, there is no magic, either. The sources of Prospero’s power are much more ordinary – he rules his home not as a magician, but as an abusive father, by manipulation, threats and violence.This reading of The Tempest as a study of a toxic family proves to be surprisingly well-suited to the world of the play – a tight space ruled by a man who wields absolute power over everybody who enters it. It also builds an interesting connection with the ultimate fragility of Prospero’s power – the man under the cloak is in fact weak, and his specialty is illusion.
Initially, this way of dealing with Shakespeare’s plot is a very stimulating one, giving rise to several excellent scenes showing how the traditional ways of reading The Tempest could be modified by dismantling the image of Prospero as the innocent victim. In the first scene, showing the awkward wedding feast of Miranda and Ferdinand, Antonio, also sitting at the table, is moving his lips without issuing any sound – he is the bad uncle one does not mention at family meetings, and thus has no right to explain his perspective. We will never know how his part of the truth could modify Prospero’s biased account of his betrayal. The toxic influence of the father also accounts for the story of the attempted rape on Miranda. She is attracted to Caliban and tries to seduce him, but when Prospero sees it, he throws a violent tantrum, which Miranda quickly picks up, copying his gestures and verbal aggression. Addicted to her father’s oppressive care, she redirects her hatred of him at her would-be lover. In Prospero’s magical world, as in all toxic families, the victims and the perpetrators often change places when the need arises, and the difference between the two can be problematic. The only exception to this rule is the female Ariel, who does not hurt anybody, but silently bears abuse from virtually all characters.
The actors give an impressive performance. Michał Jarmicki’s Prospero slowly peels of the layer of apparent helpless good-naturedness to reveal the violent aggression hidden beneath it. Marta Nieradkiewicz’s Miranda is a neurotic, infantile tangle of conflicting desires – fanatical loyalty towards her father is struggling with the urge to kill him, and the impulse to escape is thwarted by the inability to live anywhere else. Ferdinand (Piotr Stramowski) is a foolish braggart, for whom seducing the inexperienced Miranda and agreeing to kill Prospero at her request (one of the many instances where the performance deviates from Shakespeare’s plot) are all part of an exotic adventure. Caliban (Michał Czachor) is not the impulsive fool of Shakespeare’s play, but a cynical, disillusioned rebel, whose attempts at gaining freedom always fail due to his ultimate immaturity, preserved by his violent relationship with Prospero. Each of these roles is a clever balancing act between the source material and its radical revision.
However, as the performance progresses, it proves unable to carry the weight of its initial idea. The reasons are numerous, but the most important factor seems to be the ease with which both the actors and the directors sacrifice plot development for the sake of intensity and multiplicity of ideas. Some scenes develop into lengthy improvisations, very high on emotion, but low on any other kind of contents. Ideas, contexts and texts multiply. Caliban starts quoting the Book of Revelation. The furious Ferdinand repeats the opening passages of Klaus Kinski’s Jesus Christ Savior. Miranda’s mother (who left her family after childbirth) returns home and flirts with her daughter’s husband-to-be. The text moves further and further away from Shakespeare, incorporating not only fragments of other literary works, but also descriptions of dreams that the local theatregoers were asked to provide during the work on the performance. The problem with this multiplicity is that it almost completely drowns Shakespeare’s plot – and the authors of the performance have decided to keep the plot line intact, despite cutting most of Shakespeare’s text and substituting it with autonomous episodes, which could, with a little bit of effort, be rearranged at will. Most of the scenes have a similar emotional impact – they show the violent negatives, without room for possible improvement. The result is that while Shakespeare’s play shows a gradual process of reconciliation, Kleczewska’s performance is a set of similarly themed episodes, after which Shakespeare’s conclusion appears to be an artificially added happy ending, because nothing in the behaviour and psychology of the characters could possibly lead to it. The director seems to be aware of this deficiency and tries to combat it by introducing a turning point in the form of a visually arresting scene in which the stage is swept clean by a huge sandstorm. Beautiful as it is, it cannot serve as a good substitute for character development. Kleczewska’s re-reading of the Shakespearean characters and plot is fascinating on many levels, but it suffers from a lack of depth and focus. Trying to help things by means of spectacular stage effects and high-strung emotions could be seen as an admission of failure. Rewriting Shakespeare is a risky business.