As a high school student, did you watch Romeo + Juliet, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Daines? How about West Side Story, She’s the Man, or The 10 Things I Hate About You? If none of these, then have you seen The Lion King? Please tell me you’ve seen The Lion King. These are just a few of the many film adaptations of the works of William Shakespeare; some are barely recognizable, some are very close to the original language, plot, and characters of the plays. Maybe some do a better job than others. But one thing that makes Shakespeare a still-living part of our culture (and high school English courses) today is the adaptability of his works.
If you came to the Webb Theatre on campus yesterday, or if you go tonight or on November 5, 9, 10, or 11, you will see classmates and professors in SNC’s own adaption of The Tempest. In a spirit of full disclosure, I admit that I am in the show, so you may be skeptical when I tell you how great it is. But keep reading, and I will tell you why it’s great.
How do we take 406-year-old words and make them come alive? Shakespeare is old and this play is old; the first record of its performance is dated 1611. To give you some perspective, the colony at Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in North America, had been around for about half a decade in 1611, and that was near the end of Shakespeare’s career. People were still struggling to wrap their heads around the idea that the Earth might go around the sun, instead of the reverse (and even a few years later, the Church wanted to wrap their hands around Galileo’s neck).
Part of the answer is that Shakespeare never died. Do a quick internet search and you’ll find long lists of coined words and invented phrases. And although the advent of digital databases has uncovered earlier origins of some of these phrases, debunking Shakespeare’s claim to first use, respect is still due for his contribution to the English language. Have you ever had a method to your madness? A spotless reputation? Worn your heart on your sleeve? Been a laughing-stock? These are some of the phrases attributed to Shakespeare.
Even with familiar fragments and phrases, storytelling in a Shakespeare play is sometimes a challenge; we have to work with words like busilest and varlets. And the language isn’t the only challenge. I’d like to think Western culture has gotten better in some ways since 1611. Changes in what we think is acceptable make some parts of the original story inappropriate, so the things we don’t find okay are altered. For instance, the fifteen-year-old whose romantic storyline ends in marriage a few years older. These adjustments are a big part of any production; rarely is a whole Shakespeare play produced without cuts. Though The Tempest is relatively short, some of the plays might be over four hours long without cuts! According to some purists, every word Shakespeare is sacred, but since a play is a living thing, we have also cut some references that a modern audience would not understand; some jokes are just too obscure, and even if they could be communicated to the audience, jokes are less funny when you have to explain them!
Our own St Norbert College Theatre Studies production of The Tempest takes a fresh look at casting, too. The only female role is Miranda, though Ariel has been played by both men and women. I assure you, more than one woman shows up to auditions, so there’s plenty of cross-gender casting going on. Shakespeare’s representation of women has potential, but is far behind our 21st century standards. His heroines often take decisive action on their own behalf and go where tradition says they should not, but they are still products of the time period. One of our jobs as actors is to balance the original information we have been given about the character with our ideas of how the character should be and behave.
In this production, several of the roles, including Prospero, Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio, Adrian, and Caliban are traditionally male roles played by women at SNC. We have been given the rare and valuable opportunity to call the gender of these roles into question. Some of these characters will be men, but thanks to the flexibility and open-mindedness of our director, Stephen Rupsch, and our designers, several of these characters will be played as women by women. It’s been done before; Julie Taymore’s 2010 film featured Prospera, and other stage productions have cast women (though I have never seen them, and I don’t know if the characters themselves were reimagined as women).
I can’t help but talk about Prospero, because that’s my role, and I’m very excited about the fascinating opportunities a female Prospero presents. First of all, there would have been no problem if we had left Prospero and some of the others in their traditional gender assignments; in fact, that was the original assumption, and the switch was an idea that grew gradually during the rehearsal process. But my familiarity with the Taymore film, even though I’ve never seen it, opened the possibility for me, and I began to examine my lines. “Father” could be replaced by “mother,” and similar changes were possible in most of the gendered language. The nuts and bolts of this conversion took a long time to iron out, but what it does to the story is intriguing.
The 16th century relationship of a father and daughter is, you might imagine, a little questionable today. Prospero has a lot of anger and a lot of control, which can take the story down a dark path, depending on how it’s played. For me, Prospero as a mother changes the mother-daughter chemistry in a pleasing way, without the patriarchal overtones of the original. A female Prospero also presents a wonderful contrast to the island’s previous inhabitant, represented as a despicable witch. Prospero’s own struggle with anger and her magical power makes her an interesting parallel.
These changes don’t, after all, alter the core of the story, which is forgiveness, magic, and things lost and found again. The show is especially timely on this, the tenth official anniversary of the Theatre Studies program. The small but enthusiastic core of theatre majors and minors and non-major participants are all excited to celebrate the occasion. Like the first show of the new era, ten years ago, The Tempest is highly magical. What better way to mark the anniversary than with such an enchanting play as The Tempest? Come, get your tickets at the SNC box office, and fall under our spell.