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Finding a way through the tempest

Gwythian Prins
Written by Gwythian Prins

Over recent months, objective indicators have been appearing which suggest that the tide may have turned. ‘Wokeishness’ may have reached as far up the beach as it will go and, retreating resentfully with a grating roar across the pebbles, it is now on the ebb. A recent production of The Tempest suggests that even in the theatre, most vulnerable to virtue signalling, more honest artistic standards can now be found.

The rousing of the Regent House in Cambridge, led by Arif Ahmed, so that it gave no stabling to the Toopean Trojan Horse named ‘Respect’; the Rustat Judgement at Jesus College that found and denounced a false narrative judged against grounded evidence; Ministerial decision to list the Rhodes Plaque protectively at Oriel; the closure of the now notorious child and early adolescent gender reassignment department at the Tavistock Clinic: these are all signs. Others hove into view.

Yet the suction of the undertow on a falling tide can always be perilous. In the case of the Rustat Judgement, we see how strong, still, is the sense of entitlement: the sense of ownership of the terms of debate.  First, the Archbishop of Canterbury plainly saw no issue with traducing the authority of the Diocese of Ely’s Consistory Court by pronouncing his own verdict, off-hand, while the case was still sub judice. Then, when judgement by Deputy Chancellor Hodge QC was brought in, Lord Boateng’s response in his report on systemic racism in the Church of England was positively Brechtian. (” Would it not in that case be simpler for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?”)

The judgement was wrong, he averred. ‘Lived experience’ (black or oppressed – self defined) should always trump ‘heritage’; and since clearly the Trollopean processes for adjudication of Faculties by Consistory Court, (implicitly) formed in reprehensible times, had failed to deliver, they should be replaced by New Model Bishops sitting with hand-picked assessors who could be expected to deliver correct decisions.

At this turning of the tide we discover ourselves to be, indeed, on Dover beach with Matthew Arnold: “…we are here as on a darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night.”  However there is a growing distance. We are well beyond Arnold’s closing lines: far less ignorant, far more awake than the Woke. Therefore as well as the main tasks hereforeto, which have been the identification and characterisation of “wokeishness”, the rebuttal of gross misrepresentations and, to a degree, exploration of how this odd social phenomenon came about, it is perhaps timely now to add two further active tasks? How control of the terms of discussion may best be recovered and restored to empirically rooted foundations and by what methods this is to be best done.

Different pathways lead off the beach in different directions for different disciplines.  For historians, our salvation lies in rigorous and renovated empiricism.  With von Ranke, we carry our buckets back to draw water as close as can be to the source. Our discipline has had its bellyful of theoretical overdetermination and, as I am arguing in a series of articles in History Reclaimed, starting from my own home ground in African history and moving shortly to European and international history, attending much more self-consciously to the requirements of applied methodology within multi-source research has an astringent and beneficial consequence. It provides an active defence against the predations of anachronism, of decontextualisation, which are the weapons of the Woke.

But others cannot follow that path because their art is not formed for that sort of journey; or not quite so.  Performing arts have fallen particularly prey to ‘wokeishness’ because their very essence is to signal; and hence virtue signalling can be lazily invoked and promiscuously imposed. It has seemed as if there are no internal defences against the irritating mischiefs of pointless cross-gendering, obfuscating stage and costume design and the rest. Following in hot pursuit soon comes meddling with texts; whilst self censorship is all too easy.  I confess to having felt rising despondency because performing arts are now so central to public communication in post-literate cultures whose thoughts are more ‘tweeted’ than spoken, let alone written. Think of a sad recent trail of mangled classics. But no more. For I have espied the narrow doorway back along this path. It was there all along.

Major stagings of Shakespeare are cultural events of importance. They become both way-markers and signposts in the history of English-speaking culture of a centrality that really has no obvious equal in other living linguistic traditions. Shakespeare’s texts are woven into colloquial speech – hence idiom – with density and range unmatched except, perhaps, I read and am told (for I am no sinologist) for The Water Margin in China, and The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

In my lifetime I have seen three seminal late period Shakespeare productions. As a young school-boy, Paul Scofield’s 1962 King Lear lit fires within me. As a sixth-former I saw Eric Porter’s 1968 Lear at Stratford and now, as an old man, Nicholas Woodeson’s Prospero (we are, I notice, the same age exactly, he and I).

For Shakespeare scholars, the late plays have so distinctive and rarified a quality of difference from the cycle of the history plays that it has stimulated a debate about an ‘epistemological break’ not dissimilar to that which engages Marx scholars as they argue about their man. This I knew in a formal sense, from reading. But only in an experimental performance space – the Ustinov studio attached to the Theatre Royal in Bath and in the heat of a late July evening – did I suddenly realise with all my senses what Shakespeare gives us for this moment and how it can be used, if we can muster enough courage and raw intelligence.

I am no Shakespeare scholar, just someone in the audience; but for me, The Tempest  (even more than King Lear) is the play in which redemption – and hence the propulsive force of the whole drama – whirls around and through one central figure: and for a key reason of difference. Prospero more than Lear is throughout a man in charge of himself. Shakespeare moulds him as a man always well capable of command: imperious – petty at the beginning to be sure – deeply inquisitive into the causes of things, and by turns steely to the point of cruelty and yet always possessed of a capacity for grace which Lear’s narcissism blocks until, at unbearable cost, his utter dismantling uncovers and lets blossom what lies within. Prospero has always struck me as a paid-up grown up. A Duke capable of making peace through strength. His ‘redemption’ is far more a matter of his choices than ever it could be said to be for Lear. In fact so richly detailed a character makes the part truly a summit in the Shakespearean canon. And because his powers transcend the spheres of the seen and unseen worlds, it is within Prospero’s dance with Ariel more than in any other dyadic pairing in the play that Shakespeare’s messages about power, responsibility, good order and kindness are developed.

In short, The Tempest is not to be trifled with, especially as it may be – no-one seems quite sure of this – Shakespeare’s leave-taking, made explicit in Prospero’s closing invitation, addressed to the audience directly: ” … With the help of your good hands, gentle breath of yours my sails must fill… As you from crimes would pardoned be, let your indulgence set me free.”

It is always possible to turn any play, even The Tempest, into a hoot and a travesty for cheap laughs. Many do. Deborah Warner’s new interpretation does no such thing. Everything about this production is stripped back to the bone. Professional critics will be (and have been) having their say on the austerity of set and costume, on the innovative use of video, pixelated lighting and so on. My point is that Miss Warner has been austere to the point of danger; and within that danger lies a route for the visual arts to reclaim control over themselves from the manifold and unlooked-for edicts of the age of the Woke. Hers is a most respectful staging: uncompromising in its respectfulness for the right things.

In its conception this production, by its very austerity, piles everything onto two main load-bearing beams: the glory of the text and the emotional reserves of the cast in general, of the principals in particular and in particular, of Prospero. Herein is the dangerousness, for she has called for exceptional reserves of moral and intellectual strength in her cast so that the text pure and unaltered, may speak across its four hundred years. Any weakness in these qualities in her cast would be immediately revealed. None fell below the bar.

Edward Hogg’s Caliban in his main set pieces with Stephen Kennedy’s Trinculo and Gary Sefton’s Stephano delivered a bathetic, hilarious and bravely repulsive rendition that actually locked their sub-plot cleverly into the very serious central thrust avoiding the tentacles of wokeishnes that could so easily  – and often do – tear Shakespeare’s meaning out of shape into anti-imperial, self-hating over-determined modern virtue signalling. In the grime and spilt wine of this production there was no such self-indulgence. It was not an island in the play about an island, as in some productions, but a part of the main.

However, it is Prospero’s powers which make or break many things, including the integrity and hence success of the play entire. Nicholas Woodeson’s career as a character actor capable of deeply thought and finely wrought performances surely reaches an apex in his Prospero.  He carefully unveiled each facet of the Duke; and thereby spun the play onwards. His generosity of spirit enfolded and carried his Miranda. His mind like a steel trap controlled his intercourse with the shipwrecked – but not really shipwrecked – court of his conniving brother Antonio (rendered in a beautifully understated, thus chilling, performance by Finbar Lynch). But it was his transcendent dance to the music of the spheres with Dickie Beau’s quite extraordinarily still and praeternaturally physically strong Ariel, lip-synching Fiona Shaw’s voice, that, for me, made this production truly whirl in my head.  Shakespeare really lived on that stage and across four centuries, he blew the doors off.

How then does such a theatrical milestone figure in an essay on the turning of the tide of Wokeishness? Allowing the untampered text to soar and asking the actors to dig dangerously deep into themselves provide the raw materials for cire perdu: the metal and the wax respectively, to cast the key to the door of escape from the phalanxes of snippers and traducers who would gut the performing arts of their autonomy and honesty in the name of the ‘woke’ agenda. I am not suggesting for a moment that this was in fact a conscious part of anyone’s agenda in this production. How could I know?  I could not.

But I am observing that consciously or not, this is a Tempest for our times because it blazes a trail along which – unlocks a door through which – high performance culture can render itself proof against today’s racial quotas, trigger warnings and the whole ghoulish nine yards of ‘wokeish’ regulation. In this matter Shakespeare himself has stretched out a helping hand,  of course. After all, Alonso, King of Naples has just married off Ferdinand’s never seen sister Claribel to the king of Tunis, a blackamoor. And no-one is sweating about that. Shakespeare already inhabited his characters at far more interesting levels than race.

How does a Tempest of such rare quality help us to recover our senses? Because it is a model; a paragon; a sans pareil. In this case, the sheer quality – the mental and moral force demanded of her cast by the Director – deploys such a power that it rolls over the lesser-minded, feeble-minded, process driven inanities of ‘wokeist’ interferences. Miss Warner’s gift, transmitted to us by a brave and competent cast inhabiting the medium of Master Shakespeare’s culminating blank verse shows that mind-forged manacles can be broken in this way.

We must confront the texts of the past unadorned and as faithfully as we can, without cancellations to prevent triggering, without heavy-handed redressing to make a contemporary point;  and we can trust ourselves to do this, because we have seen that in this case Miss Warner’s cast rose to the occasion. Risky, yes, but is there a respectable alternative? If we are not prepared to act The Tempest in this morally austere manner, respecting the facts of the past and of the present, we might as well not try at all.

Of course it may be objected that what I prescribe is only made possible by the unique concatenations which I have described; and to a degree that is undeniable. There is only limited material from the late period Shakespeare canon, just as there is only limited material in Rembrandt’s final self portraits, just as there are only few Constable ‘six footers’, few in number of Beethoven’s last string quartets, one Schubert Arpeggione Sonata, one Winterreise cycle – I could go on. The point is simple. All have (for me at least) transcendent quality; and if that is recognised and gripped with the courage on display in Warner’s 2022 Tempest, we may find that we are better equipped that we had realised to escape the dark satanic mills and build afresh the new Jerusalem of mature, liberated, self-guided minds. Sapere aude – dare to know – wrote Immanuel Kant in 1784. He emblazoned that credo on his banner as urgently for today’s battles as for his own.

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Gwythian Prins

Gwythian Prins