There’s an old saying that “Water and fire are good servants but bad masters”. Well there’s not much fire in The Tempest, but, as the play opens, there’s plenty of water – bucket loads, nay, ocean loads of the stuff hurling the King of Naples’s ship onto the rocky shore of a remote island.
The absence of fire is curious because you’d think that, if you’d just crawled onto an island after being shipwrecked, making a fire to dry yourself out would be fairly high on your list of priorities – probably something to do with Jacobean fire regs.
Or maybe the King of Naples and his entourage don’t need to make a fire because this was a magical storm and their clothes are not only magically clean, but magically dry. In Northern Stage and Improbable’s recent washday-themed production of The Tempest, this is the work of Ariel –the washing powder which, when applied by the spirit of the same name, becomes a storm-inducing oofle dust as well as being good for your whites.
It’s powerful stuff, but the problem with power is, like fire and water, its capacity to wreak havoc and destruction if once it overflows its boundaries. And the boundaries of power are broken not by forces of nature or acts of God, but by an only too human desire for more power.
The Tempest begins with a back story of usurped power. A palace coup in Milan has seen Prospero, the rightful ruler, deposed by kid brother Antonio with the support the King of Naples. Prospero and his daughter Miranda have been exiled on an island where Prospero can pursue his hobby of acquiring magical power, which interest may well have led him to take his eye off the ball in the first place. Not to worry because once on the island, the deposed duke uses his powers to make slaves of one spirit (Ariel) who becomes the vehicle of his magic and one son of the earth (Caliban) who knows how to do useful stuff like finding food.
The opening storm and subsequent shipwreck are the physical manifestation of this accumulated power, inviting the audience to ask of Prospero, “Who is this that even the wind and waves obey him?”
Post shipwreck, more people get drawn into the quest for power, whether it’s the King of Naples’ brother in a failed copycat coup or jokers Antonio and Sebastian’s drunken plot to overthrow Prospero and become lords of the isle.
And then in the middle of it all Miranda (15) discovers boys. Helpfully, the first boy she comes across is a handsome prince to whom she quickly becomes engaged thus fulfilling both her romantic destiny and cementing a useful political alliance. And, yes, daddy’s magic might have played a role, but for the first time we glimpse a Prospero who uses his power unselfishly and, more significantly, sets his daughter free from his parental authority.
It’s this apparently trivial scene that sets the tone for the rest of the play which is concerned with the relinquishment of authoritarian power and the exercise of the healing power of forgiveness for past wrongs. The storm is finally quelled, balance is restored, stolen power flows back into its legitimate boundaries and people and spirits are set free.
This might be a 400 year old play set in a semi-magical world that would give Tolkein a run for his money, but it’s no soap. Shakespeare’s analysis of the human condition was never so accurate or so timely.