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Saturday, September 25, 2021

Storm over Shakespeare’s Tempest  as ‘decolonising’ experts say it could be harmful to audiences

The talk was the latest in the Anti-Racist lecture series launched by the theatre to help “liberate Shakespeare from the shackles of idolatry and subservience and put him to work for all people”.

The Globe’s website states that there are “harmful, challenging and uncomfortable moments in Shakespeare”, adding, “we have to contend with these too”.

Lectures in the series offer advice on how to contend with these academically and on stage.

Ms Sayet suggested that in order to stage an “anti-racist” version of The Tempest, producers should ask questions, including “Where does the power live?” and “How do we dismantle oppression in this scene?”.

Dr Manning Stevens highlighted the “insistence” on the “monstrosity” of Caliban as a problem in the play, which could be addressed by casting a “beautiful” actor in the role of the enslaved islander.

The character, who tells newcomers to his island: “Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises”, is enslaved by the magician Prospero before the action of the play begins.

The fate of Caliban in the play, written during a period of British expansion, has been seen by some as mirroring colonial activity in the 17th century.

Caliban’s name has also been interpreted as having echoes of the word “cannibal”, and being linked to contemporary European views of native populations in the New World.

The Globe’s latest discussion follows a session on “problematic” language in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play in which “white is beautiful, that fair is beautiful, that dark is unattractive”.

Michelle Terry, artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, said research was an integral part of the theatre’s work, “both in its own right and in dialogue with artists”. 

“The anti-racist webinars are an exploration of the plays rather than an analysis of our productions,” she added. “The webinars and conversations held around the plays do not feed into the creation of a production, nor are they meant as a comment on them. 

“All our theatre and education programmes aim to provide a rich tapestry of interpretation and conversation to support The Globe’s belief in the capacity of Shakespeare to be read and performed in multiple ways.”

‘Shakespeare is about challenging us – we always have antagonism’

By Carol Chillington Rutter, Professor of Shakespeare and Performance Studies at the University of Warwick

Who says which stories harm or heal – and harm or heal whom?  What harms me might heal my neighbour. Is the storyteller in control of all the meanings that emerge from any story, especially stories told over time, as Shakespeare’s are? Stories – especially Shakespeare’s – have a habit of shifting meanings when new audiences listen to them.

Should the theatre be a “safe space”, as a recent American President once tweeted, or should it be a place of risk, challenge, difficulty, “hard words”?

Maybe we need to remember the paradoxical challenge Peter Quince offers, mangling his message, when as Prologue to “Pyramus and Thisbe” (in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) he tells us, “If we offend, it is with our good will … We do not come as minding to content You.”

Maybe the process of healing involves exploring our wounds. Shakespeare’s stories do just that.

The idea that theatre can harm you is an anti-theatrical argument that has been around since the earliest London playhouses were built, with their warnings of corruption and plague. Talk of harm is the rhetoric of antitheatricalism – that it’s either going to corrupt you morally or it’s going to kill you 

But theatres have always been volatile places, not least in Shakespeare’s day when masses would be packed into the “O”, and Shakespeare is always about challenging us – we always have antagonism, we always have an argument on our hands, and nothing is going to work simply by consensus. Out of that conflict comes what we, the audience, think about it.

Shakespeare’s plays never have a single meaning, they always acquire meaning through performance –  it’s about the next production.  Do you see Caliban as black or white? Is the setting in Africa or an Ice flow, as in the Rupert Goold production in 2006?  In the play, Prospero’s island is clearly set in the Mediterranean, they’re sailing from Milan to Tunis and back again.  

Caliban is controlled by Prospero, but his mother Sycorax took over the island before the action of play, after being dumped there herself. Shakespeare takes a very ironic view of these ideas of ownership, and the play admits so many possibilities that people are going to find the possibility that aligns with the moment, and explodes the play.

Do we get harmed by explosions?  Of course we do, but that’s what theatre’s about. 

The harms that they release, they’re the ones that we really need.

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