Why The Tempest?
If you are a regular follower of this blog (if not, why not?) then you will know of my long-term involvement with Shakespeare's The Tempest (1610).
If you are not familiar with this play then all you need know is that it is set on a desert island to which Prospero - the former Duke of Milan - and his teenage daughter, Miranda have been banished.
On the island Prospero uses an airy spirit called Ariel to enact his magic. This beautiful painting (below) of Ariel flying on a bat's wing is by Fuseli, one of the most imaginative and accomplished of artists who have illustrated Shakespeare's plays:
Henry Fuseli, Ariel (c. 1800-10)
Prospero also enslaves a 'savage' called Caliban yet it is Caliban who is the rightful owner of the island.
John Hamilton Mortimer, Caliban (1775-76)
This is Elizabethan colonialism at its most ruthless and one reason why perhaps scholars today have found that this play still resonates with political and social issues.
When Caliban attempts to rape Miranda, Prospero cruelly punishes him:
The play - like the island itself - is imbued with Magic. One artist who captured the haunted nature of the place was Richard Dadd - an extraordinary, self-taught British artist who later murdered his father.
This is a scene (below) from the opening of the play when Prospero summons the spirits of the island he now controls.
Richard Dadd, Come Unto These Yellow Sands (1842)
Prospero has studied magic and is able to summon up weird and wonderful creatures to torment anyone - such as his enemies from Milan - who are themselves later shipwrecked on the island.
Here Paul Falconer Poole has captured the moment when Antonio, Prospero's evil brother, resolves to murder his colleagues shipwrecked with them.As yet they are unaware that this is Prospero's island and that he is watching their every move.
Prospero the magician is also able to fabricate Baroque palaces or elaborate masques in order to celebrate his daughter's engagement to Prince Ferdinand who, by chance, is also subsequently shipwrecked on the island.
I have long wondered why this play, of all Shakespeare' great works, should so fascinate me - to the extent that I once created an exhibition of some sixty paintings solely devoted to exploring aspects of The Tempest.
Since then I have also created at least seven large dioramas related to this strange, mysterious and entirely magical play.
The question is: Why?
I first directed The Tempest when I was Associate Director at the Oxford Playhouse in the 1970's. My production starred Francesca Annis as Miranda.
Since then I have directed it twice in professional productions and several times with drama students in one form or another.
I suppose one reason is that as a painter/stage designer it offers countless opportunities for imaginative interpretations. For the Cumbria Institute of the Arts I created a short version of The Tempest, featuring the 'back story' to Caliban and Miranda.
(Photo - Sam Henderson)
Prospero's magic gives artistic licence for almost anything. Indeed, that may explain why Derek Jarman (1979) and Peter Greenaway (Prospero's Books, 1991) have both made film adaptations of this play.
John Guilgud as Prospero in Prospero's Books -1991
Recently, Helen Mirren starred in a new film adaptation by Julie Taymor (2010).
For me, Prospero's ability to summon up extravagant architectural structures or visually complex masques appeals to my sensibilities as a stage director/designer.
If he can do it, then so must I!
And then there are the wonderful characters.
Miranda, for example, has long interested other artists but each interpretation is largely a reflection of the times in which that artist worked. Nothing wrong with that, I guess, but it does make for some very strange Mirandas
The nearest I ever got to creating a convincing Miranda 'look' was in a preliminary sketch in which she is a punk dressed in faded Gucci - or at least a Vivienne Westwood castaway!
Caliban for me is the hero of this complex tale, not least because he is the outsider and the victim of Propsero's particular brand of despotism.
Caliban - Mike Healey
When I first tackled him I conceived him as some kind of monster (as in the little charcoal/ collage above). Later I saw that he was more complex - a 'savage' capable of passion and feeling.
Caliban's Garden - Mike Healey
However, there is another reason why I love this play so much. It is a reason that I only remembered when I started writing this article.
When I was about sixteen I would regularly cycle some thirty miles (each way) from my home to a wonderful second-hand bookshop in Tunbridge Wells, Kent (UK).
There, one day, I found a 19th Century copy of The Tempest. It was small, beautifully bound with thick, creamy paper. The act and scene headings were in red. I thought this was sumptuous and bought it, there and then!
So, my real reason for loving The Tempest so much is that little edition - my very first copy of the play. Do you remember Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941)? Well, that little edition of The Tempest is my 'Rosebud'.