PRINT December 1991


Two Tempests

THEATRE VERSUS CINEMA: this is the most obvious difference between the Tempest directed by Peter Brook in Paris last autumn, from a translation by Jean-Claude Carrière, and Prospero’s Books, Peter Greenaway’s recently released film version of Shakespeare’s play. But their different media are actually the least important divide between these two polar-opposite productions. Instead, the distance between them lies in the way each revises Shakespeare.

Brook’s vision is apparently the more respectful, and also the more traditionally linear. It preserves the play intact, just barely modernized by Carrière’s limpid and colloquial French, and neither cut nor edited. Yet Brook’s staging introduces decidedly new formal and interpretive ideas. The director sets the action in a modest rectangle of sand. There are few props; the grand tradition of dramatic spectacle—with complicated scene changes, elaborate costumes, lots of extras, and all sorts of backstage machinery—is renounced. (Brook himself had deployed such devices effectively in a production of The Tempest that he directed at Stratford in 1957.) Like Brook’s Tragedy of Carmen of 1981, his new Tempest strips its material down to essentials: an extraordinary human story, a slow, initiatory collective voyage, with inner clarity at its end, but only on the condition that one has learned to face exceptional challenges.

This clarity seems to emerge together with individual freedom, or to coincide with it. In this sense there is no great difference between Prospero’s quest and Ariel’s, or Caliban’s, or the fierce Neapolitan King Alonso’s, or Ferdinand’s or Miranda’s. They are all prisoners—of circumstances, of themselves, of their own obsessions and desires, even of their own strengths. To aspire to freedom in Brook’s Tempest is not to take revenge on one’s oppressors and to reverse a relationship forced on one by power, but, more radically, to question the very concept of power, and to free oneself of it.

Working around this very current theme, Brook constructs a bare yet magical fable. Nothing is seen yet everything is sensed—alluded to, evoked, through means both minimal and suggestive, abstract and concrete. Bamboo reeds simulate the furious storm, the boiling sea, as well as the calm and sacred space of a wedding pavilion; green leaves and butterflies on flexible rods create the mysterious density of thick jungle. Thus Brook shows that in the theater, magic need not obey the economy of “big is beautiful." He has learned this lesson in part from oriental theater, but it also depends on recreating the sense of wonder and innocence we knew in childhood and on the willing complicity of the audience, which is asked to believe that two crossed sticks can symbolize a whole war.

Brook’s Tempest is also radical in abandoning many old stereotypes. Prospero, book-learned sage and magician, the Western Renaissance man par excellence, is portrayed by the black actor Sotigui Kouyaté; and the role of Ariel, that ethereal airborne spirit, falls to the Malian actor Bakary Sangaré, whose strong rocky body was seen in Brook’s Woza Albert in 1989. For the wild Caliban, a part often given to “exotic” actors to emphasize the character’s place outside Western civilization’s rules, Brook uses a white actor, David Bennent, and Prospero’s daughter Miranda is played alternately by the Indian actress Shantala Malhar-Shivalingappa and by Romane Bohringer, who is French and Vietnamese. A moral and political subtext is clearly implicit in such a casting, yet there are other meanings here besides ideological ones. Brook has explained,

In the England of Shakespeare, ties with the natural world were still very solid. Ancient beliefs lived on. The feeling of the marvelous was quite present. Today,. . . it is by no means easy for [Western actors] to find stage images of an invisible world, because these images aren’t present in our everyday experience, nor are they preserved by our culture. In many other cultures, however, which we call “traditional,” the presence of the gods, of magicians, of wizards and phantasms evokes profound human realities. . . . For an actor who has grown up in a climate of rituality, the path to the invisible world is often direct and natural. This is why, over many years, I have often thought of returning to The Tempest, of reexploring It through the sensibilities of actors whose different backgrounds would allow me to illuminate unknown aspects of the text.1

Prospero’s Books came about above all through the desire of an actor. “I have always wanted to make a film of The Tempest,” says Sir John Gielgud, who here plays Prospero for the fifth time in his 70-year career, “but the problem was to find the right director.”2 The play is generally thought to be the last Shakespeare wrote, and the role of Prospero—omnipotent conjurer, manipulator of characters, old man settling his affairs can be seen as a kind of final self-portrait of the author, or, through identification, of Gielgud. Thus Prospero, Shakespeare, and Gielgud become a metaphoric chain of personae simultaneously absent and present, a condition inherent in theater—a place where living flesh and blood creates illusion, where dreams are more real than reality, where power coexists with evanescence.

Beginning with its new title, Greenaway’s version of The Tempest asserts its eccentricity, and its dry shift of emphasis from the sorrowful story of Prospero and the rest to the grandiose yet magical abstraction that is the creative act. Developing a possibility only hinted at in Shakespeare’s text—Prospero’s precious island library—Greenaway begins with a question at once marginal and central. Where did Prospero gain the knowledge that has not only allowed him to survive on his unpeopled island but has transformed him into a mighty manipulator of the elements and of human destinies? Was it his books that gave him his knowledge, and enabled him to reinvent his future by maneuvering the materials of his past? And what books are these anyway?

For Greenaway, the question is an occasion for a hyperbolic dolly shot of hypotheses, both visionary and philological. Prospero’s Books reveals itself as a totally saturated text, a manneristic, encyclopedic banquet in which Greenaway nominates, lists, classifies, sorts, and catalogues the disparate hypothetical elements of Prospero’s all-encompassing body of knowledge. Its narrative logic flooded and eroded by its sea of imagery, the film becomes an uninterrupted flow. The director imagines a library of 24 volumes, which he creates and illustrates as part of a punctuating sequence of episodes larded through the movie. There is a book of mirrors and one of colors, one of water, one of myths, one of the anatomy of birth, one of languages, one of utopias, one of games, one of movement. Pretexts for endless visual quotations and baroque digressions, these books are leafed through, even animated, one by one. The spectator/reader is swept along in an overwhelming bazaar of special effects, of images piled on images, of volatile colors, frames within frames like Chinese boxes—much of this through skillful use of computer imagery.

Gielgud’s voice provides the movie’s narrative glue, its grip on Shakespeare’s text. The guiding thread of the film lies in its visualization of The Tempest as a potent act of writing: making and unmaking the destinies of the other characters as he does, Prospero is as much the action’s creator, its author, as its protagonist, and Greenaway makes the play Prospero’s projection, and its people the creatures of his dream. They speak their dialogue in Gielgud’s voice. Only in the last ten minutes do the actors talk for themselves; for the rest, it is Gielgud, superb, ambiguous, implacable Prospero, who pronounces their words. It’s no accident, then, that Prospero’s final grand act of clemency, which is both a renunciation of power and an attainment of freedom, is conveyed not by the character’s traditional breaking of his wand of authority but by his destruction of his books, the tools and symbols of writing. He liberates himself from the universe of the word. It is an act of gloomy, terminal magnanimity, and is not in the least comforting or consoling, being explicitly allusive to the irreversible collapse that is death, or—but there is no great difference—the end of creativity.

These two interpretations of The Tempest exemplify a problem in contemporary artistic and intellectual discourse: the deep split between those who find pleasure and freedom in altering and amplifying a work, and who thus risk a kind of necrophilia, irresponsible and paralyzing; and those with the nerve to stick to clarity and simplicity (not, mind you, simplification). Those who don’t so much choose an interpretation as stir up the waters through endless addition, who equate everything with its opposite, who refuse a critical principle; and those who make clear, unequivocal, unprotected choices, who search for recognizable meaning, without, however, falling into authoritarianism or schematization. The first path, flashily preferred by Greenaway, has the advantage of an arbitrary manageability that stems from the wedding of artifice and superficiality. It is a union much in step with the times, with fashion, and with that curious, snobbish paracultural phenomenon whereby the Western world is fascinated with kitsch, with what has already been seen, with redundancy, with repetition. This is a literal horror vacui, bulimic and indigestible. It stands opposed to the brightness, the humor, the passion for life, the curiosity, the undiluted humanism of the second path, the path taken by Brook, who seems to believe in the necessity for change but to know that change can only be generated when one learns to separate oneself from what is not essential, while remaining ferociously attached to that hard core of humanity within each of us.

Maria Nadotti is a writer who lives in New York and Milan, and contributes frequently to Artforum. Her latest book, Immagini allo schermo: La spettatrice e il cinema, coedited with Giullana Bruno, was recently published by Rosenberg and Sellier, Turin.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.



1. Peter Brook, speaking in French, in a press conference in Milan, June 1991. Similar remarks appeared in Italian in the Playbill for Brook’s Tempest when it traveled to Milan.

2. Sir John Gielgud, “John Gielgud on Prospero’s Books,” In Miramax press material for the film, 1991.