Classic Shakespeare with a modern twist coming to the local stage

William Shakespeare

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits, and

Are melted into air, into thin air,

And like the baseless fabric of this vision

The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,

And like this insubstantial pageant faded

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on: and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

————-   ————-   ————-

The isle is full of noises,

Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not,

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about my ears; and sometimes voices,

That if I then had waked after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again: and then in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open, and show riches

Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked

I cried to dream again.

                                               Shakespeare, The Tempest

Above are two of the most significant speeches of poetry from the great musical, magical and poetic play The Tempest by William Shakespeare, which will make a rare but always special appearance on the Guyanese stage opening on the night of April 13, when it is performed by the National Drama Company (NDC), the professional arm of the National School of Theatre Arts and Drama (NSTAD).

This play will provide local Guyanese audiences the alternative theatre that critics of local plays say are necessary. It is theatre old, new and perennial. It is a classic play and vintage Shakespeare, drama that is evergreen, and exposes the audience to new modernistic types and techniques in theatre.

There are two sets of performances at the National Cultural Centre – April 13, 14 and 15, at 8 pm, followed by matinee shows for schools at 1 pm on April 17, 18 and 19. The day-time shows are particularly designed to help secondary school students who are going to be writing examinations this year. The play is on the Caribbean Examinations Council’s (CXC) syllabus, and seeing a live performance is always recommended since it brings the play to life in drama’s natural environment to facilitate clear understanding of it for the exam. 

The NDC, as a continuation of its own programming, and to fulfil its mandate on behalf of NSTAD, will perform Shakespeare for two main reasons. One has already been mentioned.  Drama in education is a part of the mandate and the NDC has already staged two plays from the CXC prescribed texts for the benefit of secondary schools. In 2016 it was Derek Walcott’s Ti Jean and His Brothers directed by Subraj Singh and Al Creighton, then in 2017 it was Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel directed by Nicholas Singh and Ayanna Waddell. In addition, in 2017 the students of NSTAD worked in collaboration with GEM’s Theatre Productions to stage Julius Caesar another CXC text directed by NSTAD Lecturer Subraj Singh.

The other primary reason for producing this play is also connected to the mandate for the training and advancement of theatre at a national level. This has to do with exploring theatre at advanced levels and exposing the audience to different types including post-modern advancements in form.  In all cases techniques of dance, music and stage-craft were applied to the plays to provide alternative styles of theatre on the local stage.

Additionally, another rare production of Shakespeare is offered. The absence of types of theatre apart from the usual popular comedies has been a source of several comments and many criticisms. The absence of classic types, and even the best Caribbean plays, including Walcott, has deprived local audiences of important theatrical experiences, and therefore a production of Shakespeare stands out as a valued contribution.

The Tempest is directed by Esther Hamer and Keron Bruce and is another example of the application of post-modern techniques. Nirmala Narine is production manager. Music plays a vital role in the drama, and, in fact, this romance is known as one of Shakespeare’s most musical plays. For the NDC production the musical director is Kimberley Samuels who has composed music for some of Shakespeare’s lyrics as well as brought into service music for other songs in the play already standard. Dance is another crucial element in this style of theatre and there is the employment of choreography by Melinda Primo-Solomon and Esther Hamer.

This element of music that Shakespeare made so important to The Tempest is to be found in the many songs in the text, such as those sung by Ariel (Lorraine Baptiste), Caliban (Onix Duncan) or the various choruses of spirits and goddesses. But of equal importance is the poetry. It is a highly poetic drama not only spoken in verse, but containing lines charged with poetry, a musical as well as a poetic quality. A good example of this is the speech by Caliban excerpted above – “the isle is full of noises”.

This is very important to text and meaning. This is a play with a post-colonial ring to it when viewed from a modern standpoint. The lead character Prospero (Mark Luke-Edwards) is the archetype of a coloniser and master who has taken control of the island belonging to Caliban, establishing an archetypal master-servant /coloniser-colonised relationship with Caliban.  Caliban is presented as a kind of monster, a character who, according to Prospero, only “stripes may move, not kindness” and whose nature no nurture can improve. His mind is as ill-shaped as his body.  Caliban is supposed to be such a foul beast that he is incapable of learning and no amount of kind treatment or good example can change him.

But Shakespeare challenges that opinion and really shows Caliban in a more sympathetic light.  He is understandably bitter and cursing – “you taught me language and my profit on it is I know how to curse”. However, he has learnt the language well and is capable of enlightened thought.  This speech “the isle is full of noises” and others like his description of how Miranda (Nirmala Narine) “taught me how to name the bigger light and how the less” not only shows his learning, and enlightenment, but contains some of the best poetry in the play.

Other ironies are seen in the themes of usurpation, of politics, of imperialism, because Prospero himself is a victim of usurpation. He is the Duke of Milan who was treacherously cast out by his brother Antonio (Kevin Kellman) who seized the Dukedom. We see how, unlike Caliban, Antonio is by nature a savage who sets about instigating Sebastian (Clinton Duncan), brother of the King of Naples (Christophe Greaves) to kill the king and claim the throne.

In this scheme of politics, we also see Prospero engineering the marriage of his daughter Miranda with Prince Ferdinand (Nicholas Singh) so as to cement a pact with the king and his place in Naples. Prospero’s scheme can also be ironically equated with Caliban’s, because Caliban, too, is plotting to regain the island that Prospero took from him.

One of the highlights of this play is magic. Prospero is a magician, a master at the art of sorcery and it is his command of the elements with the help of Ariel that he calls upon to regain his lost dukedom. This is the central subject of his speech reproduced above “Our revels now are ended”.  A major feature of the play is its pageantry, spells, illusion and spirits.

The Tempest is also one of those plays that make rich use of the theatrical, since Prospero and Ariel can conjure up anything with creations of illusion and spirits of the air, including sound.  Music is one of the many theatrical elements used to enchant, to hypnotise, to celebrate, to soothe or confuse. A further extension of this is that it has been long held that this play is very autobiographical for Shakespeare and alludes to his own life and career as a dramatist. It is speculated that the magic is the art that he weaved around the stage and since The Tempest was one of his last plays, it is a metaphor for his farewell to the stage. Prospero is Shakespeare who has crafted magic as a dramatist.

Here is a play that moves from the political to the supernatural, from treachery to romance. It is also a Shakespearean comedy in which villainy is brought to book, tragedy averted and there is a happy resolution for lovers as well as major political players. Its delights include the illusions, dance and music.

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