On the day when it was announced that archaeologists from the Museum of London had uncovered the site of the Curtain Theatre, it was especially delightful to see a ‘wooden O’ put to such good use. For all the Indian interests of their Indian Tempest, Footsbarn theatre stayed true to their theatrical and circus roots and trusted literally, to a large circle of wood that served both for a stage and, appropriately, for the contested land of the island on which Prospero and Miranda wash up. This week they are staging this new piece in the open-air in Trinity’s Front Square, watched over by an audience that includes among it some louring classicized stone heads.
This isle is full of noises, and this Shakespeare is trilingual, with half a dozen more bodily languages thrown in through dumb-shows, dance, masque, magic and Ariel’s exceptionally lyrical physical articulation. A white-haired ‘Swami’ Prospero who has not lost his lordly ways, a girlish and petulant Miranda and green and airy Ariel represent India, but Caliban is white, English and working-class. Ferdinand, the moustachioed gallant who, bizarrely, looks like he has just stepped off the set of Pirates of the Caribbean, speaks almost entirely in French; one French drinking-song makes Stephano his only companion in that language, apart from a convenient smattering of French from Miranda.
There’s no stinting on Prospero’s magic here, and the power of scenes such as Prospero’s commanding of his younger Milanese self to narrate to Miranda the story of their exile made up for the occasional moment where Prospero’s staff-wielding was unfortunately evocative of comic-book villains. A collection of drapes, fixed and mobile, give the set depth as well as props, and create effective new dramatic spaces in which to re-tell the well-known story. Live music and frequent forays of musicians on and around the stage adds to the celebratory atmosphere, and though the set develops broadly from images of water to images of flames, a few more candles would not have gone astray.
Footsbarn work as a collective, declaring their dedication to improvisational techniques and the ‘Language of Theatre’. There were some problems with pace, particularly in the Prospero scenes, and the vivacity and imaginative realization of the opening scenes eases into fairly straightforward knockabout outside of the love story. Happily, the nets from the opening tempest scene are remembered once again and pressed into service to entrap the Italian nobles and provide another nice symbol of European colonization of the island.
Despite its fusion of Indian and European influences, and Footsbarn’s trademark incorporation of movement, music and dance, this remains a very traditional production of Shakespeare’s play. Caliban calls to mind Max Beerbohm’s hairy brown creature, and Prospero’s disturbing concluding acknowledgement that Caliban, ‘this thing of darkness’, is his own creation is delivered softly to the wind. A comfortable paternalism characterizes Prospero’s relationship with Ariel and the class-lines are strongly felt both on and off the island from beginning to end. A silent concluding scene attempts to restore some dignity to a Caliban who grunts more than he curses, but I wasn’t convinced that it quite countered the bestial Caliban we had come to expect to hear before we would see him.
The Indian material adds colour and a fresh lease of life to this over-familiar play, and it sometimes seems as if India’s ‘cloud-capped towers’ is a release mechanism for all the players of this tough island drama, Prospero included. The former Duke of Milan seems to escape a stiffness of expression only in his Indian moments, and Ariel’s Indian masque and performance of the wedding ceremony in a series of joyful shouts makes of Miranda and Ferdinand’s alliance something far more joyous and anarchic than the political instrument Prospero has designed it to be.