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Reviewed by:
  • The Tempest
  • Catherine Young
The Tempest. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Des McAnuff. Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford, ON. 21 July 2010.

Christopher Plummer's knitted brow and windswept hair created the official face of the 2010 Stratford Shakespeare Festival. The publicity materials' image of Plummer brooding alongside forked lightning presented a different Prospero from the affable if sometimes impatient "benevolent dictator" he gave the audience in The Tempest. Prospero's famous outbursts, including his angry refutation of Ariel's (Julyana Soelistyo) request for freedom, his curse of physical torment on Caliban (Dion Johnstone), and, finally, his dire warning about premarital sex to Ferdinand (Gareth Potter) and Miranda (Trish Lindström), were all delivered as fleeting spells of cantankerousness from an otherwise kindly, even mischievous patriarch. The comfortable control this conveyed to the audience masked the absolute grip of power Prospero actually has over the island and its inhabitants and signaled the production's urge to focus on delight and magic, as opposed to the more malevolent themes of patriarchy and colonization.

There have been several high-profile productions of The Tempest in recent years: the 2006 Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production with Patrick Stewart's cool and severe Prospero; New York City's Classic Stage Company with Mandy Patinkin conjuring an often hostile and almost paranoid Prospero (2008); South Africa's Baxter Theatre Centre-RSC collaboration with its overt colonial take in 2009; and Sam Mendes's 2010 Bridge Project production that was determined to avoid the play's potential for whimsy. In the last three of these productions, each with wildly different aesthetics, Caliban was played by a black actor. What does this suggest

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Christopher Plummer (Prospero) wearing his magic garment in The Tempest. (Photo: David Hou.)

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Julyana Soelistyo (Ariel) and Christopher Plummer (Prospero) in The Tempest. (Photo: David Hou.)

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Dion Johnstone (Caliban) in The Tempest. (Photo: David Hou.)

about the casting methodology that has developed for The Tempest?

In his program notes for the Stratford production, dramaturge Robert Blacker discusses Montaigne's "Of the Cannibals" and how fantasies of the New World fed the imaginations of England and continental Europe, yet he also asserts that a strictly colonial critique "diminishes the complexity of Shakespeare's play." The costume for Caliban in the Stratford production visually cued his split status, with a bodysuit painted with reptilian scales on the right side and muscles and ligaments on the left. Tufts of animalistic fur ran down the spine. As Caliban, Johnstone kept a low center of gravity and often skulked about the stage on all fours. Once Caliban professed his loyalty to Stephano (Geraint Wyn Davies), they developed a physical intimacy akin to that between a pet and its owner, with Stephano staying stern yet placating Caliban with gentle pats to the head and Caliban eagerly licking Stephano's foot several times. By casting a black actor in the role but costuming him as an animal, it seems the production wanted to imagine Caliban as a racial Other and a creature from another land without fully drawing out the implications of either choice.

Meanwhile, Soelistyo's Ariel was conceived as an androgynous blue sprite with a Mohawk. The actress's diminutive stature and giggling delivery created a sense of impish delight that quickly erased the memory of Ariel's early request for freedom. Given Canada's official policy of multiculturalism and multiculturalism's potential to reify exoticism, it was difficult not to read racial politics into the casting of Ariel and Caliban. Giving the role of the accommodating assistant to an Asian woman and the hostile slave-animal to a black man suggested a production that did not go beyond the limiting perspective of colonial dynamics, but, rather, was still deeply embroiled in colonialism's received logic.

While this colonial logic remained sublimated in casting and costuming, fanciful magic mesmerized. The sense of wonderment in The Tempest allowed director Des McAnuff (also the artistic director of the festival) to utilize Stratford's substantial budget to full effect. The use of...


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