Friday, August 15, 2014

The Many Incarnations of "The Tempest"

(L to R) Posner and Teller’s The Tempest, Forbidden Planet, London’s Royal Opera House’s The Tempest and Cirque du Soleil’s Amaluna
Considered Shakespeare’s final full-length play that he wrote alone, The Tempest—like many of his other plays—has seen numerous adaptations of its story. In Aaron Posner and Teller’s adaptation, audiences find themselves transported to a Dust Bowl-era traveling tent show. Live magic and illusions by Teller, quirky and haunting music by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan and choreography by Matt Kent of the dance troupe Pilobolus have given audiences a new and unexpected take on Shakespeare’s tale of sorcery, young love and shipwrecks.

Adaptations of Shakespeare’s The Tempest popped up as early as the mid-17th century. In fact, John Dryden and William Davenant’s The Tempest, or the Enchanted Island became the favored version of the play (over Shakespeare’s) for most of the Restoration era. But, Shakespeare’s original text gained popularity again in the 18th century and, since then, artists have turned to the play for inspiration.

Today, stage revivals range from traditional to experimental, and artists across different media have translated The Tempest’s story into film, dance, opera and even circus. 

Some Notable Productions and Adaptations of The Tempest

Forbidden Planet, a 1956 science fiction film, puts a futuristic and psychological spin on Shakespeare’s classic. It tells the story of Professor Morbius and his young daughter, Altaira, both stranded on the imaginary planet of Altair IV. When Altaira falls in love with a spaceship captain from Earth, the lovers find themselves up against a mysterious creature set on keeping them apart.

Aimé Césaire’s 1969 play, Une Tempête, tells The Tempest’s story from a postcolonial viewpoint. While much of the plot is the same, Prospero is cast as a white slave owner and Caliban and Ariel as black and biracial slaves, respectively. Caliban, who ruled the island before Prospero’s arrival, retaliates against his enslavement; Ariel takes a more passive, nonviolent approach. In the end, Prospero frees Ariel, but Caliban remains a slave.  

Forbidden Planet theatrical poster.
A published version of Césaire’s play.
Helen Mirren as Prospera

In 1979, filmmaker Derek Jarman released his take on The Tempest. The film, which drastically cut the original text, featured Jarman’s quirky and often provocative visual aesthetic and starred Heathcote Williams as Prospero. Christopher Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991), which starred John Gielgud, also focused on stimulating its audience visually, using dance, animation, opera and a large cast.

Director Yukio Ninagawa directed a 1988 production of The Tempest and introduced a non-Western theatrical sensibility. In the production, Prospero played the role of director of a Japanese Noh play. 

An opera adaptation, with music by English composer Thomas Adès and a libretto by playwright Meredith Oakes, debuted at London’s Royal Opera House in 2004.

Playwright, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa—who happened to be commissioned by SCR for the play Doctor Cerberus, produced in 2010—transplants characters from The Tempest to present-day New York in his adaptation Rough Magic. In the adaptation, Caliban seeks help from a group of unlikely New Yorkers to help him defeat Prospero, who stops at nothing to regain his stolen book of spells.

In 2010, Julie Taymor, known for helming ambitious stage and film productions (including the Broadway production of Disney’s The Lion King), changed the character of Prospero to a woman, Prospera, and cast Helen Mirren in the role. This, however, is not the first time a woman has stepped in to play the role: In 2000, Vanessa Redgrave played the role of Prospero at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

The Cirque du Soleil touring show, Amaluna, is loosely based on Shakespeare’s play and is set on an island where a goddess, Prospera, rules.

Check out this video of Aaron Posner and Teller talking about their adaptation of The Tempest:

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