Director’s Notes on The Tempest

Like all of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, The Tempest overflows with themes and ideas that, for a director, present a dilemma of abundance.  There are so many directions one can take the play, both thematically and visually, that the pre-production process often becomes overwhelming, for we cannot throw onto the stage, in the short space of two hours, the infinite universe of ideas suggested by the play and its characters.  Each director must create a cohesive series of focus points and conceptual parameters for the particular production on which they are working, or risk losing the play and the audience in the maelstrom of rich fabric offered up by the playwright.

Being the Artistic Director of a Shakespeare theatre has given me a slight advantage in this honing down process for I have had the privilege and opportunity to experiment and think about the play over a very long period of time.  Indeed, it was the play with which I made my “debut” here at The Shakespeare Theatre more than 23 years ago.  That first production was a critical success that served well the goal of making a splash as the new Artistic Director; but for me, the chief merit of the production was that it profoundly informed me about the complicated odyssey on which I would have to embark if I was to leap into waters of Shakespeare’s complex ocean with the life-long goal of learning to navigate his waters well and with expertise.   And more specifically, that 1991 production taught me what not to do with The Tempest next time round.   Subsequent viewings of other directors’ productions of the play afforded me the chance to continue to contemplate the perils of this particular piece and how best to approach it when the next opportunity arose for me.   Much of what you will see on stage tonight exemplifies those years of thought about the play, and I hope my musings will, as Prospero says, “please.” 
There are many things that set The Tempest apart from Shakespeare’s other plays, and while I think that it joins the rest of the canon in embodying the singular thematic obsession that lies at the heart of all of his work – the issue of balance – it pushes many of his other signature characteristics to new heights.  For one, I think that it is the most “noisy” of all his plays.  I use that word in the sense that it is noise-laden – a veritable symphony of luscious words, music, constant sounds that emanate from the natural world and from sources far more mysterious; there seems to be a sense of underscoring for almost every moment of the play.  It also feels far more overtly autobiographical than his other work, and while I think that we can track Shakespeare’s life and his ever-evolving thoughts, moods, and philosophies over the course of the canon, this one feels very personal.  Perhaps we would not feel so were it not his last great masterpiece.  Only Henry VIII comes after, and much of that seems written by another playwright.   There is no question that the play evokes the workings of a mind that knows its short time on earth is drawing near its final act.

There is such a feast of ideas, themes, concepts, provocative notions, conflicting philosophies, rich characters, and imaginative possibilities that lie within the pages of The Tempest that it would take a lifetime to explore them all.  To even begin to discuss them in my short allowance of space here would be futile.  The great Italian director Giorgio Strehler spent his life obsessing over this one play, and worked on it over and over for decades, attempting to create the perfect production.

So, in these short notes, I will simply share with you my overriding goal for this particular production, a goal that is akin to my ever-evolving work on Macbeth.  Perhaps the best way to explain it is to describe my frustration over the huge pitfall that The Tempest (and Macbeth) presents to directors, and that every production I have ever seen has fallen prey to, including my own first attempt many years ago.  Because the play is dripping with magic, supernatural events, and an otherworldly characters, each production I have witnessed becomes a kind of parade of one special effect after another – we blatantly see the attempt of the director and designers to create a never-ending spectacle of unusual devices and tricks to outdo previous productions, themselves, and Shakespeare; they work hard to wow the audience with a cornucopia of magical machinations.  Therefore, so often, the agonized and beautiful heart of the play get lost.  It becomes swallowed up and consumed by effects, and we are left disappointed that the play did not touch us as it should – that all it amounts to is an “insubstantial pageant.” 

The important tempest of the play is not the storm at sea, but the tempest that rages in Prospero’s breast.  When we let his very real turmoil become consumed by the false, theatrical turmoil we create with “toys,” we let the real play sink into a whirlpool of trickery.  Having said that, I do not deny that the play is filled with magic of many sorts and one cannot ignore that fact nor fail to serve up a significant dose of magic if one is to serve the play in total.  I have tried to make the magic as organic and elemental as possible so that we become far less aware of its artificiality.  I have attempted to construct a world where the magic is so natural that we suspend our disbelief easily and quickly. Once that is accomplished, we can focus on the true issues of the play and we are not repeatedly taken out of its reality by our thoughts on how a particular special effect was accomplished.   I have, therefore, taken many radical liberties with this production.  Those who know the play well will see where I have done so. 

Lastly, scholars and practitioners alike seem to frequently declare that the characters are two-dimensional and that they simply serve the pageantry, the ideas, and the glorious poetry of the play, and so that is what they focus on.  I disagree, and I hope that my years of observing and studying the play will pay off so that I can release both the piece itself and its characters from the manacles of cheap magic that so often bind it and hide its deep, inner light – which is its real magic – from our too-often, spectacle-stuffed eyes.