The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Brave New World


It's getting very near the end now, you will be pleased to learn. Only three or four more to go.

There is a body of thought that thinks there is an autobiographical element to this play, and that Prospero represents the author in what is, essentially, an extended encore of his past work. I'm normally sceptical about this sort of theorising, the idea that any text is an accumulation of influences, sources and Things The Author Wanted To Get Off His Chest. It strikes me as being a rather nerdish and very reductive approach, as it doesn't take into account the ability of the author to actually Come Up With Things Off His Own Bat. Indeed, occasionally I get the feeling that it is so desperate to uncover trails of antecedents that it places undue weight upon similarities that are insignificant, coincidental, tenuous or merely in the eye of the beholder, and doesn't allow for the fact that occasionally geniuses do think alike, particularly when faced with similar problems with a very limited range of solutions.

However in the case of The Tempest it is, and I'm reluctant to say this, pretty explicitly a play about Shakespeare calling it a day. You don't know how much it pains me to say this, I loathe having to agree with the pat-theories of my English teachers, but well, you try finding another reason why Prospero says:

PROSPERO: Graves at my command have wak'd their sleepers, op'd, and let 'em forth, by my so potent art.

And I'm sitting thinking, have they? Graves? Opened up? I don't remember there being any zombies!

No, the line isn't really referring to anything in The Tempest at all, it's referring to Shakespeare's reputation as being a knock-out when it comes to doing history plays. It echoes the introduction to one of the histories - can't remember which - where some narrator fellow says 'the dead will live again on this stage before your eyes'. Or maybe I read that in a review somewhere of Richard III. I don't know. It might have been Henry V.

So, yes, I'm afraid Prospero does sort-of represent the author. Particularly in his big 'I'll break my staff' speech, and the final 'Let your indulgence set me free' speech, but also in the way that Prospero directs all the action within the play, cueing the special effect sequences, giving instructions to Ariel and so on.

Now, I used to have a bit of a problem with this. Because, well, the fact that Prospero is so all-powerful, and so omniscient, that the play consists pretty much entirely of him just pissing about. So it has virtually no suspense and very little plot. If we know that Gandalf will step in with his magic wand whenever things get sticky, there is little sense of danger. So some bits feel a little pointless; Caliban's hapless and hopeless attempt to kill Prospero.

But, and again I hate having to agree with my English teachers, but it doesn't really matter that it's all pointless because it is all so much fun, and constructed so beautifully. It is, in a sense, not really a play at all, but an insubstantial pageant. Here's the giveaway line:

PROSPERO: And, like this insubstantial pageant...

That's an interesting little speech, by the way, where Prospero the character seems to be musing on his own fictional status, knowing that he has no life outside the play and that he is the figment of an author's imagination. Of course, this is also a metaphor for life, as we are all figments of God's imagination - it's the whole 'life is like being a character on a stage' metaphor which we've seen time and time again - As You Like It springs to mind, but there are plenty of other instances. Macbeth is another one. But The Tempest makes the point more explicitly than ever; Prospero admits the other characters are merely actors in his 'dream', and that his existence is merely a 'dream' conjured up by the audience, the author, and that whole willing suspension of disbelief business that Samuel Taylor Coleridge was always so keen about.

But, yes, an insubstantial pageant. Not so much a play as a greatest hits collection. Because you've got the star-crossed lovers, Ferdinand and Miranda, who fall in love at first sight, and overcome an obstacle to their love ; an obstacle created by Prospero purely for the sake of there having to be an obstacle:

PROSPERO: This swift business I must uneasy make, lest too light winning make the prize light.

Elsewhere, you've got comedy, with Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo - Trinculo coming across as a lightweight Falstaffs/Bottoms/Dogberrys. They're not exactly the most sophisticated or original comic characters Billy Spear came up with but they're funny enough. And you've got court intrigue, with Antonio and Sebastian attempting to kill Alonso, but because that would be too much of a downer, they never actually manage it.

And, in keeping with the greatest hits collection idea, the story brings back all the old motifs; the old 'romance' standbys of shipwrecks and girls growing up in rustic isolation and exiled dukes, plus a return to the magical forest of Arden from Shakespeare's early comedies, surrounded by the windswept wilderness of his later tragedies. Puck from Midsummer is given a re-spray job as the invisible magic pixie Ariel. Only Caliban doesn't seem to be reprising a past glory; he reminds me of various characters that have ended up in caves, but there's never been a character quite as brutish or bestial as him before. Not even in Titus Andronicus.

But, just as greatest hits collections aren't proper albums, I wouldn't say The Tempest is a proper play. The three plot lines don't interact at all - it's more like a 'clip show', or The Five Doctors, an excuse to bring out all the old favourites one last time, in what has to be the most unnaturalistic and otherworldly of Shakey's plays.

I think I said in an earlier thing that the romance plays were the equivalent of science fiction - stories about travel to exotic places and derring-do - and it feels like I am stating the bleedin' obvious to say that this is more true than ever with The Tempest. Clearly this was why it has inspired so much sci-fi (of which, more later) but even in terms of its day, it contains all the elements we associate with sci-fi. It is metaphorical storytelling, for instance - real life through the looking glass - and it has a scary monster, it has a friendly monster, and, most conspicuously of all, it has loads of gratuitous special effect sequences. The whole 'shipwreck' at the beginning would have been a showcase for all the different bangs and rumbles of which the theatre was capable - and characters are constantly appearing and disappearing, as though by magic. I'm sure I read somewhere that the play was partly intended to showcase all the effects available at the Blackfriars theatre, culminating in an entirely gratuitous sequence in the middle where some pixies and gnomes appear out of nowhere with a levitating banquet table. Just because they can.

Okay, so that's the play, more or less. Much against my preconceptions, I really like it, it is finely-honed, economical, lean, and the funny bits are surprisingly amusing. It is lightweight, of course, and frothy, but that's not a criticism. It's clearly the best of the Romances - ooh, I can do a list in a minute - and probably deserves to be in the Big Bard top 10. If only because, like Midsummer, there is something intangibly magical about the whole exercise - it has a fairytale, childlike quality, but more than that, it has a sense of wonder, of freshness and of delight.

Now, as I said, this play has been particularly influential particularly with regard to sci-fi. There's the Forbidden Planet thing, which is surprisingly faithful to the play (but not so close that it excuses you from watching it, oh no!) - though it is superior to it in at least one respect, in that it features an actual plot i.e. in Forbidden Planet Caliban is a monster genuinely capable of killing Prospero and the others. Forbidden Planet also throws in some psychoanalysis (which I'm not convinced was deliberately present in the original play) by making the monster the 'Id' to Prospero's 'Ego'. But it has Robbie the Robert as Ariel which is cool. And Leslie Nielsen.

But that's not all. Via Forbidden Planet, The Tempest has also, albeit indirectly, inspired Star Trek's The Requiem Of Methusulah plus Doctor Who's The Planet of Evil, The Face Of Evil and, of course, we've all ready the bloody Unfolding Text, Kinda. Which even has some people playing chess in it, just like in The Tempest so it must be deliberate.

Ooh ooh this reminds me of a thing. In Kinda Doctor Who says 'Such stuff as dreams are made of'. Which isn't the correct line, which is 'such stuff as dreams are made on'. Doctor Who is not, in fact, quoting Shakespeare but is quoting the first track from Dare by The Human League (or The Maltese Falcon). There’s a fact for you to lose friends and unimpress people.

Oh, and there are at least two other Doctor Who associations. The Sycorax in The Christmas Invasion get their name from the witch that is Caliban's mother and the title of the audio Full Fathom Five is a quote.

And while we're about it, what other famous quotes are there? 'What's past is prologue'. 'Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows'. 'Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not'. 'How cam'st thou in this pickle?' And, yes, young Huxley at the back, well remembered, 'Oh brave new world that has such people in't.'

It also has the wonderful line:

TRINCULO: I do smell all horse-piss at which my nose is in great indignation

which I can't understand why isn't more famous.

Whilst we're on the 'sounds and sweet airs' - The Tempest correlates quite well with Forbidden Planet - but how well does it correlate with Lost? Clearly Lost takes some inspiration from The Tempest - the situation, for a start, and they both have people hearing strange whispering noises in the jungle. But aside from that, not much - or so I thought, until I got to this bit...

CALIBAN: That, if I then had wak'd after long sleep, will make me sleep again, and then, in dreaming, the clouds methought would open and show numbers; four, eight, fifteen, sixteen, twenty three and forty-two.

The BBC production is very good; one of their best and thoroughly recommended. The opening sequence with the eponymous storm is even on FILM!!! Can you f*cking believe it! And the sets are pretty good, and if I'm not mistaken they are using the same jabolite cliff flats that represented prehistoric Earth in City of Death.

Before I talk about the cast, a brief word about the acting profession. Actors, as we all know, are a little bit weird. If you ask them what got them into the business, they'll say they have always had a burning desire to play Hamlet, or Lear, or Cleopatra. However, in actual fact, what actors really want is to be given the opportunity to prance around on tiptoe, covered in gold body-paint, with only a glittery posing pouch to contain their modesty, talking in a willowy singsong voice and posing like a ballerina who is trying very hard not to go to the toilet.

In other words, they want to play Ariel and poove about madly. And in the BBC production, pooving about madly is none other than Ford Prefect himself, David Dixon. So if you've ever wanted to see him covered in gold paint prancing about in a tiny glittery thong, this is your (literally) golden opportunity. Actually, he's terribly good, though I suspect he was cast because he has an androgynous quality - from certain angles he's a dead ringer for Jenny Agutter.

Except she, of course, wouldn't be seen dead prancing about in a small glittery thong. No, knowing her, she would REDACTED like in Logan’s Run.

Who else is in it? Well there's Michael 'the bear with the very hard stare' Hordern as Prospero - not sure whether he's any good or not, but he has a lovely voice. Warren 'the Northerner' Clarke plays Caliban (lots of islands have a North). Nigel Hawthorne is very good as Stephano and Andrew Sachs is very good as Trinculo, though I've never noticed before that Andrew Sachs has REDACTED.

There's also John 'clap-trap' Nettleton, playing some lord or other, and Christopher Guard as Ferdinand. I thought he had been 'Olvir' in Terminus but that was his brother Dominic. He was, however, 'Bellboy' in Greatest Show In The Galaxy. Miranda is played by his cousin Pippa Guard, so look out for some kiddies there with webbed toes and hairy foreheads.

But, yes, can't recommend this production too highly. It certain does unpleasant things from a great height all over the un-f*cking-watchable Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman versions. Christ, and I've sat through them both. Though in the Jarman one you do get to see Toyah's REDACTED, if you like that sort of thing.

Anyway, a quick synopsis. Won't take long, promise, it's a very short play.

Prospero, Duke of Milan, has been deposed by his brother Antonio, aided by Alonso, the King of Naples. Prospero was forced to flee by boat with his daughter Miranda. There was a shipwreck, and they've spent the last dozen or so years on this unnamed spooky island. During which time Prospero has discovered that there used to be a witch living there, called Sycorax. He's learned all of her magic tricks, and freed a pixie called Ariel to do his bidding. He's also tried to bring up Sycorax's half-man-half-fish offspring, Caliban, but when Caliban attempted to rape Miranda they had a bit of a falling-out and Caliban was banished to the wilderness end of the island.

The story kicks off with Miranda just blossoming into womanhood - she's legal, okay? There's a second shipwreck caused by Prospero. Ariel makes sure all the people on the boat are washed up on shore.

First to be washed up is Ferdinand, the son of Alonso. He meets Prospero and Miranda, and falls in love with Miranda. Prospero says he can't have Miranda unless he proves his worth by, oh, chopping logs and other odd jobs.

Next to be washed up are Alonso, Antonio, Antonio's chum Sebastian, and miscellaneous lords. Alonso thinks his son was killed in the shipwreck and is bit down. Antonio and Sebastian plot to kill him, but Prospero intervenes, instructing Ariel to make them sleepy. They drop their swords and cuddle up together.

Finally washed up are Trinculo and Stephano, a couple of drunk servants from the boat. They stagger about comically before bumping into Caliban in a brilliantly funny scene. Caliban pledges loyalty to his new 'master', Stephano, suggesting that they should all go and kill the wicked wizard Prospero. Again, Prospero intervenes, Ariel distracting Stephano and Trinculo from doing the deed by the magical materialisation of a washing line.

And in the end, all of the various parties are brought together, and make their peace with each other, because, of course, the love of Miranda and Ferdinand has shown the way forward. It turns out that the boat did not sink after all but is safely docked in the bay round the corner, and so everyone (apart from Caliban) heads off to the boat to set sail for Naples. Prospero decides to give up his magic, breaking his staff and throwing his books away.

And that's it. The BBC production can be watched for free on YouTube.


It's time for Jonny's Most Pukka Shakespeare list once again!

Those plays marked with a * are essential. You have been recommended.

Those plays marked with a + are for completists only. You have been warned.


In reverse order.

4 Pericles: Prince Of Tyre +
3 The Winter's Tale
2 Cymbeline

and, waaaay out in front, the most pukka Shakespeare romance is...

1 The Tempest *

Still to come: I got married to the widow next door, she's been married seven times before... second verse, same as the first! Yep, it's HENRY VIII.

1 comment:

  1. "It also has the wonderful line:
    TRINCULO: I do smell all horse-piss at which my nose is in great indignation
    which I can't understand why isn't more famous."

    It's famous in my house! Well, I say it a lot, at any rate. It's stuck in my mind since seeing The Tempest on a school trip to the Young Vic in 1988. Alexei Sayle was Trinculo, and gave the line more than its full weight. From the scattered tutting that followed I got the impression that much of the audience thought he was ad-libbing.