March 27, 2013

Silent Shakespeare: Seeing Sea in 'The Tempest'

It was my birthday a few weeks ago and by way of celebration, my husband surprised me with tickets to a Silent Shakespeare production of The Tempest at Synetic Theatre, Washington DC. Yes, you read right: Silent Shakespeare!

I love the theatre although I must admit that I much prefer watching, rather than reading plays; when I am reading plays, I inevitably spend more time visualising and 'directing' the play in my head, rather than focusing on the language/overall text. Shakespeare is a rare exception though and that too only recently. Despite being an English Literature student during my undergraduate years, I have somehow only now begun to fully appreciate Shakespeare's extraordinary word-play, how he mines multiple meanings from words or wields them as functional tools or musical instruments or weapons, depending on the situation at hand. These are flesh and blood words, which possess distinct lives and personalities of their own - while remembering literary quotations have never been a great forte of mine, Shakespeare has always been an exception.

So, I was very curious to see how a Shakespeare production in absence of words would turn out to be -  'see' is certainly the operative word as it would have to largely rely on the visual presentation and to further extend the word play, what with The Tempest being set upon an island, the sea and water play elemental roles in the production.

Still from 'The Tempest'

On being seated inside the theatre, the first thing that one heard was the lulling sound of waves pounding the shore; having been greatly missing the sea lately, it was a much loved and welcome sound and peering down upon the stage, I saw a large expanse of water which would literally become the theatre of all the actions and events occuring in the play. As an usher chuckled, those sitting in the front-row were often severely drenched and as the play inched towards its conclusion, I realised what she meant! It nevertheless made for an intriguing prologue to the show.

The Tempest is the ninth production of Silent Shakespeare and as Director, Paata Tsisurishvili remarks in the Director's Notes that accompanied the play, "Since our first production in 2002, I have often been asked, without the language, is what we do really Shakespeare? I believe it is. Since Shakespeare has been translated into multiple languages, his words having found multiple expressions and becoming a truly universal institution in the process, we believe that language of movement is no less valid method of exploring his work than any other. As Shakespeare himself painted with words, we attempt to paint his words with our images...'"

And paint they certainly did...

The play celebrated the beauty of movement: light turning the sea a peaceful jade or a furious red, Prospero's flowing robes soaring and swooping during a dramatic encounter and as in one of my favorite scenes above, rivulets of water streaming down from the piano keys visually embodying music. The absence of language does initially challenge you but as you become immersed in the play, the body's physicality and the sheer flexibility of it, universe of facial expressions, and the undulating surface of the water all become alphabets to contribute to the vocabulary of this language of movement. Yes, there is a determinedly exaggerated grandness to the emotions, expressions, and even, the costumes but that becomes the production's signature touch, its unique approach to interpreting and translating Shakespeare's text. Towards the end, as the players happily dance away in unison, creating an arresting sight of dance, music, sound, light, and movement merging together into a visual symphony, you realise that not a word has been uttered - and has not mattered, after all. 

Do you like watching Shakespeare, whether in film or theatre? What has been your most favorite experience??

Photographs taken by Johnny Shyrock and courtesy Synetic Theatre

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