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Mick Gordon on directing The Tempest | reviews, news & interviews

Mick Gordon on directing The Tempest

Mick Gordon on directing The Tempest

Prospero is 400 years old: a leading director on an enduring enigma

Prospero's girl: Sophie Franklin is Miranda in the Oxford Shakespeare Company's open-air production of 'The Tempest'

The central character in Shakespeare's final play, The Tempest, is a betrayed Duke called Prospero. Prospero means omniscient panic: an apt name for an all-powerful creator of tempests and general wreaker of revenge.

However, the profound appeal of this 400-year-old play, which I am directing in the Oxford Shakespeare Company's site-specific open-air touring production this summer, lies not in the narratives of malignant magi and lustful monsters, power-craving lords and their wine-craving servants. Rather it resides in the force of the external stories and characters as metaphor.

All theatre takes place in the minds of the audience. It is their suspension of disbelief allows the true magic of theatre to happen. In the presence of theatre our minds cannot help themselves: actors are turned into characters, silk cloths into swelling seas, wooden flats into strange worlds. Or in other words, in the theatre our minds cannot help but read the literal as metaphor. Shakespeare above any other writer before or since either knew or sensed or divined this fact. And The Tempest remains his ultimate achievement because it not only assumes the uncontrollable imaginative collusion of the audience, but sets out to present and explore its workings.

On a simple level it is clear to see that the omniscient panic of the sea-storm, created by Prospero to bring his enemies to his island, echoes the scale of rage within the creator himself. But The Tempest is much more than this. And in the play, every single character and their individual story reflects a specific aspect of one man’s mind.

As usual in Shakespeare it falls to the Clowns to give us the clue. And it is within the silly verse of Stefano and Trinculo’s dance-song that we find it. "Flout em and scout em," they cry, "scout em and flout em, thought is free, thought is free." Again, this could be viewed as a warning to would-be tyrants: you can put me in chains but my thoughts remain my own. A different perspective produces a more uncomfortable analysis, which it suggests that despite our intuitive assumption that we make up our minds, it might just be the other way around. For all our flouting and scouting, our minds are freer than we would care to admit. It is our minds which make us up.

Prospero is not only the creator of omniscient panic; he is its unconscious sufferer. Our protagonist stops to question the logic of his havoc-strewn revenge only when his petulant spirit-servant Ariel, having sent his masters' enemies into madness, reports that their terrible suffering would induce compassion in any heart. "Do you think so, spirit?" Prospero asks. The reply: "Mine would, sir. If I were human."

The protagonist in any play is the audience’s representative. And so we are all Prospero, united by the human condition of ubiquitous panic, and a unanimous self-misdiagnosis as moral rational minds. I think it is this that explains the enduring appeal of The Tempest. This, and the fact that the play suggests an external, Ariel-like agent is required to illuminate our true condition. Some of us have concluded that this agent is God. Whereas I believe that it is the Theatre.

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