Der Sturm [The Tempest], directed by Simone Sterr, Landestheater Tübingen, 4 July 2013.
Review by Lisa Peter
The tempest of the play’s beginning almost became reality for the press night of Simone Sterr’s open-air production at the Landestheater Tübingen. Heavy clouds over the Neckarparkhaus let audience members and ushers alike get their rain capes out but fortunately the weather played its part and only came to the fore when appropriate, for example, when Trinculo hid from “Yon same black cloud, yon huge one” that “looks like a foul bombard that would shed its liquor” (2.2).
The performance proper opened with Prospero conjuring up the storm that is to bring his enemies to his realm with the help of wind turbines and transistors he has built on the island. His power relies less on magic – this is entirely Ariel’s sphere in this production – than on his ability to control the elements by electricity, as director Simone Sterr explained to me in an interview during rehearsals. He is less magician than scientist and engineer, who uses his knowledge to – quite literally – mesmerize the people around him, turn them into automatons he can manipulate according to his intentions.
It makes a lot of sense in this context that Sterr and her creative team cut the shipwrecking scene at the beginning and introduced Prospero right away as the mastermind behind the plot, who sets everything into motion and who also brings the play to its final conclusion. After he renounces magic in the epilogue, which he turns into a soliloquy rather than an audience address, he destroys both his power plant and its engineer by electrocuting himself, leaving Caliban to reclaim the island.
When I first heard about the idea to stage The Tempest on the top floor of the ugliest multi-storey car park in town, I thought my local theatre had simply gone for the cheapest option available. The production is part of the annual Sommertheater programme, where one of the three professional theatres in the region puts on an open-air production in a public space of their choice. Now the car park is by far the worst bit of architecture in this medieval half-timbered market town in the southwest of Germany.
What might have led the creative team of the Landestheater Tübingen to imagine Shakespeare’s magical island in these particular surroundings is on the one hand the sheer barrenness of the place. It is a nice stand-in for a forsaken little island, either wind-swept or scorching in the summer heat, as it is. On the other hand, the unrestricted view over the river along the Neckar valley becomes part of the scenerey and opens up imaginary spaces.
So when I signed up for the review, I was quite curious to see whether they would manage to turn this space into Prospero’s magical realm. As already mentioned, the stage design didn’t look too wondrous, since the production’s focus on technology turned the island into a scrap yard with heaps of rusty metal and cables, some sort of wire fence with half-blind mirrors to one side of the performance space and three huge transistors lining the balustrade towards the river. Prospero’s cell was merely a big parasol on the adjoining parking deck.
Related to this defining idea of Prospero as the master of technology – and probably also owing to the vastness of space the actors had to cover in very little time – was the frequent use of all sorts of vehicles. Prospero and Miranda’s first entrance was on an electric motor scooter, Caliban used a kid’s scooter to dash around, Ariel towed in the shipwrecked aristocrats in a golf buggy, and Stefano and Trinculo wheeled around in a very unruly freezer full of champagne, to much comic effect. Later on, Miranda and Ferdinand swap their game of chess for a round of roller skating.
As the design and those vehicles already suggest, the LTT’s staging of The Tempest was not overly interested in recreating an Elizabethan setting or mood, though it was not exactly a modern dress production either, since the Italians did wear Renaissance costumes, kept exclusively in reddish colours that covered the whole spectrum from garish pink to regal bordeaux. The costumes generally served to keep the groups apart rather than give the characters much individuality. Ariel and Caliban as the good and evil spirits of the island were in fact the only ones who stuck out in this respect, Caliban in black rags and Ariel in a silky blue boiler suit and combat boots. Ariel wasn’t exactly the airy apparition you’d expect and much more sarcastic than most other interpretations I know of, but then again Prospero made him work physically hard for his liberation in this production.
Sterr’s idea of Caliban was less the embodiment of the native brute. He is a difficult and unruly child who rejects any kind of authority, which seemed to work fairly well, as all the children of the play were conceived as immature, self-centred characters, so that Caliban simply seems the rogue orphan among all this spoilt offspring. Presenting Miranda and Ferdinand very much as children emphasized the overbearing influence of both parents in the play and since the LTT works with an ensemble and therefore regularly casts gender blindly, Alonsa’s grief for Ferdinand at the beginning of Act II became ever more poignant as the audience witnessed a mother devastated by the loss of her only son. Similarly, turning Trinculo into a girl gave the servants’ banter a slightly erotic twist.
Open air productions probably restrict the technical possibilities for dazzling theatrical magic anyway, but in this case, almost all the weight of enchanting the audience rested on Ariel’s shoulders. Karlheinz Schmitt tried his best to be in more than one place at the same time, going through several impossibly quick costume changes in the meantime, including a roasted pig costume for the feastt, but he remained human in the end and direction didn’t give much support in this instance. The choreography of the masque, for example, left him fairly breathless. For a staging that obviously put so much emphasis on technology, there was astonishingly little of it available to help him through his numbers.
In general all the running and wheeling around could have made for a fast-paced production, and for sure, there was a lot of movement on stage. However, this venue seems to have proved too much of a challenge – at least on press night when I saw the first full run – both for the actors trying to be in the right spot at the right time, and for the audience who had difficulties following the action. In several instances the visual clues as to where something was going on were simply too weak to establish a proper connection between the audience and the events on stage. So, although the LTT’s creative team might have succeeded in finding an isolated spot in the middle of town for their version of The Tempest, the production failed to turn it into an enchanted isle, and what is more, into an engaging story. The result was a technical production that could have done with a bit more magic in order to make the audience care for the characters and their fates.
More information on the LTT’s Tempest:
– My interview with Simone Sterr (in German and English translation) is available on my blog where we chat about the venue, the ideas behind the staging and the translation used for this production.
– All production details including cast and creatives can be found here (in German).
– Here’s the link to the official trailer