May 1, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

The Tempest in Adaptation @ The CAPITAL Centre Studio

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Shakespeare Page-to-Stage-to-Page is a specialist module for English undergraduate finalists, concerned with Shakespearean performance and with a particular concern for adaptation and reviewing. As part of the class, the students work on a practical project, highlights of which opened the CAPITAL Centre’s New Work Festival today.

The small audience were crammed into an airlock space between the Studio and Foyer, and given a pamphlet of emergency procedures for the oil rig Platform P-24. Entering a dark space, a hard-hatted rigger (who the pamphlet told us was called Caliban) silently pointed out the emergency exits and lifejacket procedures as a disembodied female voice welcomed us to our tour round the rig.

Hidden bodies guided us with torches across the space to a dimly lit mass of computer equipment – monitors, hard drives, circuit boards. Caliban moved behind the equipment, while a clearly terrified Miranda introduced us to A.R.I.E.L., the culmination of twenty years of solitary work by her father. A.R.I.E.L. was pitched to us, the world’s media, as the ultimate operating system, whose limits were only dictated by our imagination. From household chores to global weather prediction, A.R.I.E.L. could do anything. Miranda demonstrated by asking for a local weather calcuation, answered by the same disembodied voice we had heard earlier. However, when asked to predict weather for the entire southern hemisphere, error messages flashed up across the screens and a panicked Miranda and Caliban tried to desperately fix the machine.

From behind a curtain, Prospero (played by a female) marched in, telling Miranda off harshly for pushing the computer beyond its limitations. Angrily muttering that it would take hours to reboot, Prospero apologised to the press and marched off, warning Miranda not to make any more mistakes. At this point, Caliban and Miranda began their own conversation; Caliban told Miranda the legends of the sea, while Miranda complained about her father’s increased distance from her: "He doesn’t care about people". She longed for escape, terrified that the world of the oil rig would never change. Caliban became enraged against Prospero, "the tyrant", picked up a monitor and threw it violently to the floor. As he began to destroy the set, we were quickly escorted out of the space.

A post-show discussion explained that the full play would see A.R.I.E.L. sprawled out, constantly outgrowing the physical computers it inhabited. As the storm built outside (for in this Tempest, the titular event would come at the end), Prospero’s own madness would build and, ultimately, the audience and crew would escape the space on a lifeboat while Prospero died on his own, man-made, island, Miranda freeing A.R.I.E.L. into the internet before she left.

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The aim of the group was to try and subvert the play’s recent performance history, avoiding the obvious postcolonial interpretations and coming up with something more ecological, setting technology and industry against nature. The oil rig provides the perfect venue for this; the man-made installation in the middle of nature, plundering nature’s resources to further technology. It’s an unsustainable relationship, hence the final destruction.

There are obvious resonances to Forbidden Planet and Return to the Forbidden Planet: the electronic Ariel, the destruction of Prospero in his own creation, the giving out of emergency procedures beforehand ("Reverse polarity!!"), the communal flight before the ‘island’ is destroyed. It’s fascinating that the group’s exploration of ecological criteria has led them into a format analogous to the Freudian interpretations of the science-fiction variation, and there might be substantial interest in building on that.

The concept of A.R.I.E.L., particularly his final freeing into the internet (was I the only one who immediately thought of Skynet?!), is a fantastic one, and speaks eloquently to the opportunities and fears presented by the electronic revolution. As science delves into realms previously only breached by ‘magic’, it is ever more imperative that the Prosperos and Frankensteins of this world don’t cede control to their inventions. Against this, the plain, simple working man that was this production’s Caliban is juxtaposed ideally, and his fascination with myth and legend a perfect antithesis to the cold, binary world of the machine. In some ways, the gentle feminine voice of the machine was its most terrifying aspect, the machine taking on personality that was more human than the brisk efficiency of Prospero.

While much of the post-show discussion focussed on the imagined design of the final production, I was more interested in the intimate character details of the scene presented to us. In particular, Miranda’s loneliness and isolation. With this being a promenade and heavily interactive piece, there would be a great deal of interest in exploring Miranda’s relationship with, and reactions to, the audience themselves; if she has truly been as isolated as she says, then her fear and curiosity of the world press would be overpowering (and were, in the nerves she showed in her talk). There was talk about whether the audience wanted to escape when Caliban started smashing the set (we did) – I’d like to see a Miranda desperate to escape along with us. Her abandonment of her father, to the point where she leaves the rig in a lifeboat with the audience (she would speak the final epilogue, according to the students), would thus be gradual, taking place over the course of the play. This would in turn cast the journalists them/ourselves as Ferdinand; her flirtation is with us, our way of life, the freedom and externalness to the world of the play that we represent. To see a Miranda actually escape the auditorium with the audience at the end (maybe even looking round in wonder at the foyer?!) could be a genuine theatrical coup.

Miranda was imagined to have been learning about humanity, and family in particular, from watching videos of old movies. The play may have begun with Miranda watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s and singing along to "Moon River", and the students also referenced George Bailey’s return to his family in It’s A Wonderful Life and even Darth Vader telling Luke that he is his father. The development of Miranda as this play’s central concern was, to my mind, the aspect of this adaptation that felt most exciting, with the opportunity to re-imagine exactly how this kind of isolated life would impact on a young girl.

The idea of Prospero and Caliban representing science and nature, diametrically opposed with the former subordinating the latter, is similarly rich, and in this presentation the result was that I identified far more strongly with Caliban than in any ‘straight’ adaptation of The Tempest. His relationship with Miranda was one born out of loneliness, recognising a kindred spirit in her disillusionment with her father. There didn’t seem to be anything obviously sexual in it; rather, a sense of shared desire to escape from Prospero. Prospero, by contrast, become a more aloof and removed figure, single-mindedly focused on his work and nothing else. The chance to escape with Miranda and Caliban at the end, and see the destruction of the work, felt like a climax I’d be happy to move towards.

Finally, just a note on the imagined set, which would see A.R.I.E.L. sprawled out across the entire set, cables winding down pillars and so on; and, as the storm increased, water dripping down into the computer and causing chaos, bits of the ceiling falling in until, eventually, audience and survivors all piled into a liferaft. It sounds amazing, and a completely immersive experience. However, in practice, I personally find that the more you strive towards that kind of total experience, the less you demand of an audience. I was perfectly happy even in the spartan environment of the studio today to accept that I was on an oil rig, that the computer dominated my environment, and I genuinely wanted to escape when Caliban started smashing the set. With the more minimal set, too, I felt that I was perhaps better able to read into the very human and moving story of Caliban and Miranda than I might otherwise have been able to had there been a great amount more going on. While the imagined total experience sounded incredible, on a Punch-Drunk scale, I’d suggest that on the strength of today’s presentation, less can be more, and the suggestive set will have its own merits over an immersive one. However, the promenade format is definitely a strong one for this project, and should be utilised fully.

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