Power dynamics in Bard on the Beach’s production of ‘The Tempest’
By Brittney MacDonald, Senior Columnist
Bard on the Beach has been in full swing since early July, entertaining countless Vancouverites and visitors. This season’s lineup includes the Shakespearean classic, The Tempest, but audience members familiar with the play might notice something a tad different about the cast of characters. Tempest director, Meg Roe has chosen to reinterpret two of the male characters as female, turning the comedic Stephano and Trinculo into sisters, Stephana and Trincula. While the change might seem minor, especially since it does not concern any of the major roles, is has altered the power dynamics found in the original text—though whether this might be good or bad is a matter of opinion.
In the original text, the male duo are drunks who serve as comedic relief between scenes of Prospero masterminding his return to Naples from his exile on an unnamed island. They meet Caliban, a hideous monster of a man who Prospero keeps as a slave. Exploiting Caliban’s knowledge of the island and his hatred of his master, Stephano devises a plan to kill Prospero, take over the island, and marry Prospero’s beautiful daughter, Miranda, promising Trinculo and Caliban that they will be his seconds-in-command. Ultimately their foolishness and greed are their downfall, as Prospero devises a trap baited with riches and fine clothes, and all three are captured.
Roe’s version does not differ much from the original text, though naturally some adaptations had to be made. Stephana is not motivated to make Miranda her queen, but is still drunk through most of the narrative, and does still want to kill Prospero to take over the island with the help of her sister, Trincula, and Caliban. Their capture also remains the same.
What is different is how the pair interacts with the majority of the other characters. Originally, Stephano and Trinculo are the king’s butler and servant. In Roe’s version Stephana is the king’s brother’s mistress, and Trincula is her sister. This change is not large, and is barely mentioned in the production; but as Sebastian, the King of Naples’ brother, momentarily contemplates regicide, the fact he has a mistress just makes him seem all the more evil, when in the original text he appears more of a gullible idiot.
Of greater significance are the changes to Stephana and Trincula’s interactions with Caliban. As I mentioned before, in the original text it seems that the pair are exploiting Caliban by getting him drunk and then promising to kill his much-hated master, Prospero. In Roe’s version the physical comedy of the threesome takes on far more sexual connotations, as Stephana develops a foot-licking fetish and Trincula becomes jealous of all the pleasurable attention her sister receives from Caliban.
Caliban is not costumed as deformed or monstrous in any way, and caresses and licks Stephana’s legs and feet whenever they talk about her possibly taking over the island. This gives the illusion that he is coaxing her into killing his master, giving Caliban a level of agency that is absent in the original text. In the original text, Caliban is always under someone’s control, whether Prospero’s through fear, or Stephano’s through his manipulation with alcohol; in Roe’s version, Caliban seems to initiate, execute, and control his own actions.
Tempest is seen as being colonial literature, with Caliban being the savage native who the Caucasian Prospero attempts to civilize, yet fails to because of Caliban’s “nature.” As a result, giving agency to Caliban is not necessarily bad. Conversely, there is also the issue that through his use of sexual manipulation, he is portrayed as a sexual deviant, which gives more sympathy to Prospero, as he is betrayed by his clearly disturbed (and now drunk) servant. However, in the original text, the crime that resulted in Caliban’s enslavement to Prospero was Caliban’s attempted rape of Prospero’s daughter, Miranda. So really, how much more of a sexual deviant can Roe make him?
Of course there is also the possibility that someone might not see all of this as giving agency to Caliban at all; that Caliban is simply acting on hedonistic instincts—in other words, that he is just a horny drunk. This is also damaging because there is the danger of playing up his bestiality, exactly the issue in the original text, and making the island’s “native” even more backwards compared to the “civilized” Prospero.
Or maybe it’s just funny…
The Tempest has also been criticized for its lack of any strong female characters. True, it does have two female characters, Miranda, and Ariel. Ariel is Prospero’s servant spirit who helps enact the majority of his machinations. Technically Ariel is supposedly male in the original text, but his gender is fluid and changes with whatever form he takes.
Yet even with these comparatively strong female characters, Ariel is still a slave to Prospero, and Miranda is basically the equivalent of a vanilla pudding cup as far as character development is concerned. Translation: she’s sweet, but devoid of any real depth.
Roe adjusts the narrative to accommodate two additional female characters who despite their faults act autonomously, making their own decisions however impaired they might be; Roe’s interpretation could be incredibly progressive. Additionally, the two characters Roe swapped tend to be popular with the audience for their comedy, which could be a step in the right, feminist direction. What might draw us back a bit is if we remember that these two characters, the comedic relief, the fools of the play… are now women. Not exactly the best way of representing females—but hey, at least they are fully developed! Wholly unlike what we get in the original text where the substantial cast of characters includes a whopping two female characters.
Now onto some far graver issues: one of the scenes most affected by the gender swap is when Trincula first encounters Caliban. In the original text, Trinculo finds Caliban hiding under a blanket after the sounds Trinculo had made as he traversed the island scared Caliban into thinking that Prospero had sent spirits to torment him. Trinculo sees the deformed Caliban under the blanket and mistakes him for some sort of odd, lumpy fish. He gropes and prods Caliban, attempting to discern what he is, and only after blatantly grabbing and commenting on Caliban’s “package” (which he apparently finds impressive) does he accept Caliban is a human man, or at least something close to one. They are interrupted when yelling comes from the distance and, fearing that it is a storm, Trinculo crawls under the blanket with Caliban. The yelling turns out to be a drunk Stephano, stumbling in and seeing the two figures under the blanket moaning and crying out. The entire scene is comical as well as being homoerotic. Now would be when I describe the changes Roe made—if she had made any.
No changes were made to the scene beyond the sex of Trinculo and Stephano, so it is almost exactly the same as it is in the original text. How then is the scene affected?
By having a previously homoerotic scene now be between a heterosexual couple, the reinterpretation is in danger of propagating heteronormativity. Heteronormativity is the belief that heterosexuality is the only sexual orientation that is normal, and that any sexual or romantic relationships should be between a man and a woman. In an age where gay rights are in such dire straits, promoting this kind of thing is not exactly positive.
Alternatively, a scene that previously made a joke out of the concept of gay sex, now does not.
All of this controversy over how the sex changes could be interpreted makes me question whether the changes were worth making at all. Let us not forget that The Tempest is a classic for a reason. In the end, how the production is interpreted—whether Meg Roe’s alterations were offensive or empowering—is all dependant on the sensibilities of the audience. Even without Meg Roe, the original play has been criticized for being both racist and sexist. Personally I enjoyed the reinterpretation of Stephana and Trincula, and would recommend seeing the play for yourself before making any concrete decisions on whether or not to get out the torches and pitchforks.