The Tempest

April 20, 2010By Pierre TranArchive
the tempest, same mendes, theatre de marigny, paris

Stephen Dillane as Prospero on the left and Christian Camargo as Ariel in the center with the rest of the cast. Photo: Joan Marcus, 2010

Sam Mendes’s production of The Tempest is to Parisian theater what Avatar was to cinema around the world, with a couple of small

the tempest, same mendes, theatre de marigny, paris

Stephen Dillane as Prospero on the left and Christian Camargo as Ariel in the center with the rest of the cast. Photo: Joan Marcus, 2010

Sam Mendes’s production of The Tempest is to Parisian theater what Avatar was to cinema around the world, with a couple of small differences.

What the two pieces have in common is an impressive technical sophistication and a mastery of spectacle, skills that cast a spell of enchantment over the audience while stretching out a fairly simple story.

As to the slight differences, well these lines of Shakespearean blank verse have endured for around 400 years and show no signs of age fatigue; I wonder whether Avatar’s dialogue will stand a similar test of time.

Mendes also gets extra credit for adding the fourth dimension – time – to trump the 3D effects of his fellow filmmaker James Cameron. More on that that extra dimension later.

What impresses in this staging of The Tempest, the second part of a Mendes double bill (with As You Like It, whose run is now finished) playing here as part of a world tour, is the imagination that underwrites the dramatic enterprise. That power of interpretation transforms the words, so bare on the written page, into a complete feast for eyes and ears (whisper it not to the health inspectors, but the production even includes a lit cigarette that can be smelled all the way up to the balcony).

To hold the audience’s attention and entertain and enthrall are the prime objectives of a theater director. When they are fully realized, the result is a delight, but it is hard to find a play that is both well written and well staged. This Tempest rates right up there.

Even before the tempest breaks on us, before Shakespeare’s own set-up for what is to follow, Mendes shows his understanding of how to dominate the stage with not a word spoken while peopling it with sinister purpose: Prospero, played by British actor Stephen Dillane, enters the stage silently while the house lights are still on and the audience is chattering loudly, dons his magician’s cloak and walks around a circle of sand. Slowly, the audience quiets down, the house lights dim, and we are transported to Prospero’s world, an island represented by that circle, where a tale of revenge, treachery, love and renunciation will be played out over the next couple of hours.

Another grace note was the shimmering light playing on the walls to evoke the watery expanse that has imprisoned the former Duke of Milan for the past 12 years with his daughter, Miranda, played by Juliet Rylance, she of the beautiful husky voice and natural innocence. Rylance also played a delightful Rosalind and the gamine Ganymede in As You Like It.

Music plays a prominent part in the staging of both plays, with instrumentals and expert singing by the actors, but I had to work hard in the first scene of The Tempest to hear and follow what the actors were saying during the opening storm scene, with its loud musical accompaniment, just as I found it difficult to pick up the opening lines spoken by Orlando, played by American actor Christian Camargo, in the production of As You Like It.

I also struggled with the flat delivery of Prospero’s lines, and although Dillane speaks as if he were to the iambic pentameter born, his offhand way of reading his lines detracted somewhat from the character. He expresses himself more forcefully near the end of the play, pointing up even more his earlier understated tone. He delivers the famed line “We are such stuff/As dreams are made on” naturalistically, almost as if he were ordering a pint in a pub, rather than playing the Grand Shakespearean. He was more convincing as melancholy Jacques in As You Like It.

Camargo gives a sparkling performance as the sprite Ariel, master manipulator Prospero’s chief prankster and gofer.

The impressive African-American actor Ron Cephas Jones plays Caliban, an interesting casting choice, given the extensive writing in the 1950s and ’60s on the character as a victim of white colonial oppression. I found it odd that the house laughed at Caliban’s line “You taught me language; and my profit on’t/Is, I know how to curse.” A more bitter rumination, full of recrimination and despair, I have yet to hear.

The scene in which Prospero gives up his powers, taking off his magician’s cloak, discarding his book of spells and breaking his wizard’s staff, is an enchanting moment of theater.

As for the fourth dimension, Mendes travels back in to time to the carefree childhood of plump-cheeked Miranda, conjuring up the bottomless love that a father feels for his daughter. Time passes, suitors arrive, but the memory of early days anchors that inordinate affection of the parent.

The staging of these two Shakespeare plays is part of Mendes’ Bridge project, in which he brings together British and American actors to perform classical drama in co-production with the Old Vic in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Neal Street theatre.

With this project, Mendes returns to his theatrical roots. He was the director of the Donmar Theatre in London before he got the call from Hollywood to direct his first film, American Beauty, which won five Oscars. The two plays were staged in New York in February and will open in London at the Old Vic in June as part of a tour that will also travel to the ancient theater in Epidaurus, Greece, and to Hong Kong and Singapore.

Pierre Tran

Théâtre Marigny: Carré Marigny, 75008 Paris. Tel.: 0 892 222 333. Remaining performances of The Tempest: April 22 ,23 and 24 at 8:30pm and April 24 at 3pm. Tickets: €40-€90. www.theatremarigny.fr

Reader Chilla Rousselle writes: “I feel as if I had been to see The Tempest, thanks to your vivid description. As for the dialogue, I’ll vote for Shakespeare! BRAVO!”

Reader Susan Luraschi writes: “Wow, what a review! Whew. I guess I should get my buns over there, with a hearing aid.”

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