Pyrotechnical Tempest

Next to the Globe theatre in London on the Southbank is the Sam Wannamaker Theatre, or, as I feel it to be, a theatre such as Inigo Jones would have designed in the early decades of the 17th century. Wooden seats, walnut backdrop and candles burning, then as now. There would have been much stage machinery  – pulleys and winches for deities to descend and actors to rise with scenery, pyrotechnics and costumes designed by Inigo as revealed in his sketches and designs. All were exploited in the thrilling theatrical world of the early 1600s when Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones were creating spectacular masques for James I’s Queen Anne of Denmark and their elder son, Prince Henry.

Most agree that Shakespeare wrote The Tempest in 1610 – 1611 and that the original music has survived for the most famous songs ‘Where the bee sucks’ and ‘Full Fathoms Five’. The composer, R. Johnson, was in the service of Prince Henry, the first important English royal patron of the arts – he died young, so instead of King Henry IX came King Charles I – but that is another story!

Sir Walter Raleigh, eight years older than Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, both born in 1564, had in 1610 lost the influence he enjoyed in Queen Elizabeth’s court. However the description of his voyage to the New World greatly influenced the world of Shakespeare and of Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones, respectively eight and nine years younger than Shakespeare. By 1610 Jonson and Jones were already collaborating on masques, ‘the stuff that dreams are made of’ as Prospero says in The Tempest. This was Shakespeare’s last work. He retired to Stratford-on-Avon and lived for five more years as a prosperous gentleman. Theatrical fashion was changing and he probably had no taste for it. Prospero asks the audience to ‘set me free’ – the last words of The Tempest. They were probably the last words Shakespeare wrote.

I have seen many productions of The Tempest, but none so magical as the performance streamed to cinemas – and worldwide, I hope – from Stratford to mark the close of 2016, 400 years after Shakespeare’s death. If Prospero speaks for Shakespeare, then a playwright creates spells that enchant, and indeed we were spellbound by acting, singing and dancing literally within visual effects too wondrous to describe, even when seen in a cinema – imagine them on a stage! While Ariel was on stage he was simultaneously floating, weaving silvery in and out of the ribs of the shipwreck round the stage with a gap for the storm, the waves, thunder and lightning that surged and spilled over the stage as if the audience were engulfed. Even in the cinema, people gasped and cringed as they rolled towards us. An enchanted island where wrongs were forgiven, lost ones found, love celebrated.



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