Year of Shakespeare: Y StormAdaptationYear of Shakespeare

  • Alun Thomas

This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.

Y Storm or The Tempest, Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, Dir. Elen Bowman, August 7  2012 (matinee), at National Eisteddfod Maes, Llandow, Vale of Glamorgan, Wales.

By Alun Thomas, Cardiff University

Y Storm immerses you from the first. Walking into the tent from the muddy fields and lowering grey skies of the Eisteddfod is like entering another world. The floor is covered in sand, as is the stand where the audience sits on cushions placed on the floor. The stage is bare except for a pile of wood and the whole scene is bathed in a soft yellow light, creating the effect of being on a tropical beach. Faint sounds of the sea can be heard in the background, blending with the expectant chatter of the audience, slowly growing louder as the start time approaches and eventually breaking into a storm as the play begins.

Gwyneth Lewis’ highly anticipated Welsh version of The Tempest is an adaptation rather than a translation. Shakespeare’s Elizabethan verse is converted into modern Welsh, using stress, onomatopoeia, alliteration and rhyme within a line to create new rhythms. As a phonetic language Welsh is particularly suited to poetry; each word can have manifold meanings and associations, depending on its sound or place in a line. This offers a rich scope for new understandings and interpretations of Shakespeare’s text. For example, Miranda’s lament for the shipwrecked sailors which opens Y Storm is translated from Shakespeare’s ‘dashed all to pieces’ to ‘yn rhacs ar y creigiau’, meaning ‘in pieces on the rocks’. In Welsh, the phrase is horribly transformed; in this context ‘yn rhacs’ conjures up images of ripping and tearing, of something damaged beyond repair. When used to describe the flesh of sailors caught in a tempest the effect is ghastly.

The play starts with the sound of thunder in the darkness, followed by the sudden entrance of Prospero’s spirits, led by Ariel. They move gracefully and quickly across the stage, then set upon the sailors with gleeful savagery. There’s a real sense of terror as they writhe and fight, desperate to escape the grasp of the spirits, climbing ropes and gantries and screaming in their attempts to survive. The absence of dialogue works extremely well here, the terrified shouting being far more effective than words would be. The viciousness of the spirits’ attack sets the tone for the play: this is a dark, disturbing Tempest which focuses on cruelty and power. Prospero’s relationship with Ariel appears sadomasochistic at times; his response to Ariel questioning his plans is to hang him from a noose and summon spirits to torture him as he dangles over the stage, writhing in agony. This astonishing moment exposes the troubling undercurrents inherent in the text.

Prospero, played by Llion Williams, makes an understated entrance, appearing in the midst of the audience and strolling on to the stage. His shabby dress and surprisingly humble demeanour give no hint of his power until he speaks: his voice echoes around the tent, everywhere and nowhere at once. His only possession is a whip, which he uses to viciously punish Ariel at various points throughout the play.

By contrast, Meilir Rhys Williams’ portrayal of Ariel is nothing short of spectacular. A young, boyish spirit full of childish exuberance, he projects a demented glee in the tasks he performs for Prospero. His face painted to resemble a mime, he initially appears to be full of fun but it doesn’t take long for his dark side to emerge. Williams plays him as the kind of psychopathic child who enjoys pulling the wings off flies and tormenting animals; in this case, the child has near-omnipotent powers and the creatures he torments are human. The gloating joy with which Ariel punishes Ferdinand, the fascinated cruelty he takes in the suffering he causes, make for uncomfortable but riveting viewing.

The relationship between Ariel and Prospero is similarly captivating. The unhinged child Ariel appears to be in love with the aged Prospero, often gazing at him with a disquieting mixture of adoration, fear and lust. The love appears to be unrequited, judging by the callous way he’s treated by Prospero, who shows no hesitation in ruthlessly punishing him for the slightest infraction. Llion Williams plays Prospero as an embittered, broken man waiting to die. The only delight he appears to feel is the joy he takes in the suffering of others, whether it be Ariel, the sailors, Caliban, or Miranda, whom he treats coldly, with a complete absence of love. He seems to view her more as a prop than a human being, and his emotion upon betrothing her to Ferdinand seems perfunctory and uncaring.

The masque held in celebration of their union is astounding as Ariel, in full mime/ringmaster attire, leads the spirits in a gleeful and terrifying circus act. Swinging from trapezes, juggling fire and dancing, the sumptuously-dressed spirits project an aura of unearthly power barely controlled. The pace of the celebration speeds up as the song continues, creating a bizarre sense of imminent collapse. This occurs with brutal swiftness as the trapeze collapses and the dancers abandon their routines mid-move, moving quickly offstage without a backwards glance. The sense of broken rhythm unsettles the audience, leaving them visibly tense as the play continues to its final scenes.

For the most part a faithful adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, Y Storm deviates from Shakespeare’s text significantly at the play’s conclusion, to jarring effect. Prospero’s line ‘let your indulgence set me free’ becomes ‘rhowch fy rhyddid nawr i mi’ in Welsh, meaning ‘give my freedom to me now’. Y Storm concludes with a demand where The Tempest ends with a request, completely changing the tone of the final speech and defying audience expectations of how the play might end.

Tension is the leitmotif of this production; Y Storm seems designed to unsettle, reversing many of the assumptions an audience would have when watching The Tempest. Stunningly acted and stunningly choreographed, the performance lingers in the mind long after the play is over. A flawless production, Y Storm is a complete and utter triumph.

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For more reviews of productions in the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

Alun Thomas

Author: Alun Thomas

Alun Thomas received his PhD from Cardiff University in 2012. His thesis studied the making and remaking of history in Shakespeare's history plays. Currently he lives and works in London. He is our Associate Editor for Wales.