“It’s a uniquely complex play,” director Robert Carsen says, “and simple at the same time. It operates on so many levels. It’s one of the most extraordinary examples of what theatre can do.”
Carsen is talking about The Tempest, the 1611 romantic comedy by William Shakespeare, believed to be the last play Shakespeare wrote by himself. Carsen brings the old English classic to Paris’ fabled Comédie-Française in a new French-language production. Performances begin December 9.
In the play, the magical Prospero—the deposed Duke of Milan—and his 15-year-old daughter, Miranda, have been living on an isolated island for 12 years with the sprite Ariel and the deformed Caliban, both slaves to Prospero. Prospero conjures a tempest to bring to the island his usurping brother Antonio, as well as Alonso—the King of Naples—Alonso’s son, Ferdinand, and the king’s brother, Sebastian, among others, to seek revenge and make things right.
For Carsen, one of the most important elements of the play is the concept of power. “Shakespeare had a lifetime of studying power, and how men are just endlessly attracted to power, in spite of everything,” says Carsen, who has directed productions of Candide, My Fair Lady, and the current Singin’ in the Rain (at the Grand Palais) in Paris, but is primarily known for directing opera; his work includes critically hailed stagings of Eugene Onegin, Falstaff and Der Rosenkavalier at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
In The Tempest, the thirst for power “is absurd,” he says. “It’s almost Beckettian. The characters arrive on an island where there’s nothing, and nevertheless they still go after power as if they’re back in Milan or Naples. It’s all absurd, this notion of seizing power even in the middle of nowhere. They have these huge plans, but how are they ever going to get off this place?”
All these characters “are motivated by self-interest,” Carsen says—even Prospero, until the final act, “when plans surprisingly change” and he is enlightened “that vengeance is not the only way forward,” that forgiveness is more fruitful. “The play is like sand on a desert island. It shifts all the time.”
This is the first straight play Carsen has directed in France and also the first time he has directed at the Comédie-Française. When he was invited to work at the Comédie-Française, the theatre gave him the freedom to choose his show. “I thought about it and decided that Shakespeare would be wonderful with this company and its marvelous resident troupe of actors. And intuitively I suggested The Tempest. I’ve been very attracted to it and hoped that one day I could direct it.” It’s the first time in 20 years the company has presented the play, which continues in repertory to May 2018.
Doing a Shakespeare play in translation is tricky, Carsen says. “You have to think about it carefully, because you can’t translate ‘old.’ You have to translate ‘new.’ And you can translate everything but the poetry. The poetry comes out differently.”
He chose a translation by the renowned French writer Jean-Claude Carrière, known for his many film collaborations with Luis Buñuel, for his screenplays of The Tin Drum, The Return of Martin Guerre, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Valmont and for his collaboration with Peter Brook on the nine-hour stage version of the ancient Sanskrit epic The Mahabharata.
Carsen says even an Anglophone with little or no French will be able to appreciate the production. (Read the play before going if you’re not very familiar with it.) “I hope our production speaks not only through the language but through the exchange between the actors and the audience. I have to think that even if you don’t speak French, you will intuit Shakespeare,” says Carsen.
The director notes he also had to decide on a point of view about Prospero: “Are you going to take at face value what he says about his powers—that he can bring the dead back to life, that he can make storms? Or do you interpret that in another way? And of course that’s the option we’ve gone for—more as a psychological study, if you like, of what it is to be alive, what is a desert island.”
Another important aspect of the text, Carsen says, “is that the theatre causes us to ask a lot of questions, and Shakespeare teaches us that we don’t have to answer those questions. Somehow it’s enough to ask them. If you try to find explanations for characters like Ariel or Caliban, the explaining can have a reductive effect on the experience.”
And then there is Miranda, the innocent who has never experienced the world of man and on first encountering a group of its residents famously exclaims: “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in’t.”
“The play is also singular in that it’s all men except of course for Miranda. And you have this extraordinary situation of a young girl discovering everything for the first time, and all around her are all these plots, new ones, old ones, and somehow this innocent” sees only good. “In Shakespeare’s plays, when the present becomes unbearable, there is a sense that the future might be better. But very often, he also lets you know that it probably won’t be. Whereas in The Tempest, there is an optimism in this final play—despite the melancholy—that one doesn’t encounter in any other Shakespeare play in a similar way. It’s a wonderful thing.”