Recently I was lucky enough to see Miracle Theatre perform The Tempest at Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens near Penzance. As we spread our blanket on the grass and cracked open a bottle of Miracle Brew, made especially to celebrate 35 years of open air theatre with Miracle, little did I know that this beautiful summer evening would send me on a journey digging into 16th century Italian commedia dell’arte, and to question what storytelling would look like in 2464…
Shaken and stirred
Miracle had respectfully ‘shaken and stirred’ Shakespeare’s original text, injecting their own brand of playfulness, wit and humour into the play in which Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, and his daughter Miranda are driven out of Italy by the Duke’s jealous, scheming brother, only to wash up on an ‘enchanted isle of noises’ inhabited by strange and magical creatures – the delightfully impish, mischievous sprite Ariel and the mutant Caliban. When Prospero conjures up a tempest that shipwrecks his scheming brother and band of cronies on the isle’s strange shores, tales by turns tragic and comic unfold.
“Miracle had respectfully ‘shaken and stirred’ Shakespeare’s original text, injecting their own brand of playfulness, wit and humour”
The cast – Ciaran Clarke, Benjamin Dyson, Lisa Howard, Catherine Lake, Simon Norbury, Hannah Stephens – deftly switched between roles and brought the characters to life with warmth and unexpected laughs.
As tales of young love, old jealousies, mistaken identity, magic and trickery sprang to life on the small stage beneath blue skies, I got to thinking about the enduring appeal of The Bard. This year marks the 450th anniversary of his birth – and still stages across the land are alive with his words.
What’s your secret, Will?
A little digging online revealed that when Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, he drew on the Italian theatrical tradition of commedia dell’arte – the Comedy of Craft, or Comedy of Improvision – popular in 16th century Italy. Traditionally performed outside on temporary stages, it relied on props rather than expensive scenery. Troupes of performers wore masks representing ‘stock types’: foolish old men, pompous masters, devious servants, bragging military officers full of false bravado. The mask was synonymous with the character and actors perfected the role associated with a specific mask. Scenarios were set up around the age-old themes of love, old age, sex and jealousy. Then the actors improvised. Riffing, innovating. Shaking and stirring. Placing their own stamp on age-old themes, just as Miracle had.
Brave new storyworlds
Having travelled back in time to 16th century Italy to explore where Shakespeare drew his inspiration from, my thoughts turned to numerous works of art, literature and music that Shakespeare’s words had in turn sparked. A line in the The Tempest notably inspired the title of Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World (1932), a social commentary and satire set in a ‘Utopia’ in which humans are enslaved to science and technology in a future London of 2540.
If Ariel sprinkled fairy dust upon our eyes, I wondered, lulling us into a deep slumber, only for us to awaken, Rip-Van-Winkle-like, on a summer’s evening in 2540 – or in 2464, another 450 years on from Shakespeare’s birth – would audiences still be flocking to be entertained by the Bard’s plays? What would storytelling look like in this Brave New World? What effect would technology have had on our stories – will we be riffing on the themes of love, sex, old age and jealousy in virtual reality?
There are some who believe that our civilisation has reached the point at which the stories and narratives that have been passed down to us no longer hold fast. “The stories we have inherited are no longer making sense of our lives, and a new narrative for the times we are living in needs to be forged,” state The Dark Mountain Project, a network of writers, artists thinkers, who believe that stories have a crucial part to play in questioning the foundations of the world we now find ourselves in, in the face of ecological collapse and social and political unravelling. What form these new narratives will take remains to be seen.
What would storytelling look like in this Brave New World? What effect would technology have had on our stories – will we be riffing on the themes of love, sex, old age and jealousy in virtual reality?
Life, the universe and everything
For now, as a writer, the two things I take away with me from musing on the past and future of The Tempest are these. The power of the universal. And the power of the personal, specific and local.
The universal themes have been with us since we first sat beneath the stars telling stories around the fire. Stock types and archetypes are instantly recognisable across cultures. Drawing from the well of these eternal types and themes provides us as writers and storytellers with a common language instantly recognised by our audience. These are the ancient bones of storytelling.
Clothing the bones in new garments, woven from time and place, embroidered with our own unique patterns and textures, like Miracle, is what keeps these ancient stories fresh and relevant.
Will these ancient bones have turned to dust in the Brave New World of 2464 or 2540? Probably we’ll never know. And so, let’s crack open another Miracle Brew as the late evening sun glints off St Michael’s Mount out in the bay and sit back to revel in the spectacle as theatre-goers have been doing for centuries, to be transported as the magic of the Bard echoes down the years, made fresh and new by the never-ceasing Comedy of Improvision…
“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”
Catch the magic of Miracle on tour at venues across the South West this summer.