Surviving a Swedish ‘Tempest’

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A memorable atmosphere…

In optimistic defiance of the depressingly reliable unreliability of the Northern summer, there is usually a good deal of outdoor theatre to be enjoyed in Sweden in June, July and August. Recently, I joined a party of Shakespeare enthusiasts in climbing-boots and windcheaters on the rocky peninsula of Kullaberg, a nature reserve in southern Sweden, for an evening of what was described as ‘theatre in the rough’: a promenade production of The Tempest. In addition to a great deal of rock-climbing and mosquito-wrestling, this ‘tribulation theatre’ offered us a chance truly to feel like the play’s marooned mariners, finding ourselves in an unknown and potentially hostile world. Kullaberg is craggy and bleak, with trees so gnarled and beset by winter storms that they grow almost horizontally; never have Trinculo’s plaintive words ‘Here’s neither bush nor shrub, to bear off any weather at all’ felt so apt.

In this particular production, the visuals proved more interesting than the action – simply because here, nature was an actor, too, and the main actor at that. Apart from the Ponderosa-like palisades of Prospero’s cell, there was very little man-made scenery.

From the first scenes, played against the spectacular backdrop of the grey, angry waters of Öresund (the strait between Sweden and Denmark) and a pale, reluctant sunset, we were led through thickets where occasional solar-cell lights gave off a faint, otherworldly sheen, and where invisible creatures made music, and giggled and whispered in tiny voices; this isle was indeed full of noises.

The Tempest has always seemed to me a chamber play of sorts which could easily be done as a three- or even two-hander, but in this universe, the indigenous creatures seemed manifestations of the place itself, and consequently, it seemed completely right that Caliban and Ariel each had a whole train of followers. In Ariel’s case, there was a musician ‘playing’ his moods on the violin, plus a handful of elfin imps in knitted grey bobble hats, silently waiting on the sidelines (in the manner of ball boys and girls) until given their orders. They sang and made ethereal music on the wind-harps in the trees, playing them like xylophones; to raise the tempest, they swung bullroarers.

Caliban (who was played by, and as, a woman, the references to peopling the isle with Calibans being removed from the translation) seemed a synecdoche for any repressed indigenous population: part native American, part Sami, she was dressed in bits of fur, moss and fleece, with war-paint on her face and fern-leaves like feathers in her hair. Like Ariel, she seemed part of the landscape – a gnarled tree, a curiously shaped rock, covered in lichen. Caliban’s followers were troll-like, shy and mostly invisible, although we occasionally saw them at a distance, huddled around fires, tousled heads bent over drums, singing monotonous, Calibanesque chants of freedom to a stirring beat.

By contrast, the arrogant and elegant artificiality of the new arrivals was like a slap in the face. Alonso and his train seemed to have come directly from one of Kullaberg’s fashionable watering places; the women’s stiletto heels sank deep in the moss, and club-blazers and nylon stockings proved poor protection against mosquitoes and cold winds. Stephano and Trinculo seemed to have stepped (or stumbled) off the nearby ferry to Elsinore, wearing Scandline uniforms and clutching a cache of tax-free liquor.

Twelve years of roughing it on the island seemed to have made Prospero and Miranda a mixture of the two stances: they were distinctly human, yet of the wilderness. Prospero’s long ponytail and hacked-off beard, as well as Miranda’s lack of self-consciousness (a state of mind devoutly to be wished for many a teenager), bore testament to a life without mirrors.

But in this production, it was very clear who were the island’s true inhabitants. When Prospero and Miranda had left the stage with Ferdinand, Alonso, Gonzalo and the others to sail back to Naples and Milan, a moment of stillness ensued: then one by one, all the little Calibans and Ariels came creeping out of dark corners, climbing over the palisades, curiously examining and playing with the débris left behind by human civilization, and in a very short time demolishing it all. We could see how, in a year or two, nothing would remain; the genius loci would have taken back her domain.

As we groped our way back to the car park, to return to our own human civilization, it was nearly midnight. A powerful lamppost lit us to our cars, making everything else suddenly pitch-black – but outside its civilized pool of light, the night was still magically twilit, and heady with fragrance.

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Author:KikiLindell

Dr Kiki Lindell is a lecturer of English Literature at Lund University, Sweden.

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