This week, we shift gears from Hamlet to The Tempest, as our actors begin rehearsals for the first of our summer productions. Here Bill Iddings discusses the role of Prospero.
This summer, Christopher Plummer’s portrayal of Prospero in “The Tempest” will not compare with mine.
That probably speaks best for him.
Bill Iddings is the name.
Prospero’s the game.
I indeed am playing that role in Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company’s production of one of The Bard of Avon’s final plays.
Despite what I’ve read, I assume “The Tempest” won’t kill me.
Plummer also is taking a shot at the aging magician and exiled Duke of Milan, in Canada at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
This past December, The New Yorker magazine quoted the renowned, 80-year-old actor as saying, “Prospero sounds like ‘Oh, he’s getting on now. I guess this must be his last role.’ Then I’ll do something very quickly afterward, so I don’t die.” As did the now late comedian George Burns at 99 years old, I, at 63, keep telling people, “I can’t kick the bucket. I’m booked.”
What, as opposed to who (to which I’ll get), is Prospero?
He is the usurped Duke of Milan, Italy, an intellectual betrayed by his brother, Antonio (played by Scott Lange), kidnapped, and exiled by the King of Naples (Scott Wright). Antonio steals Prospero’s title and riches. He conspires to have Prospero and Prospero’s infant daughter, Miranda (Elle Lucksted), cast away on a distant isle. However, Prospero also is a magician, a sorcerer who can, among other things, control the weather. Twelve years having passed and Miranda on the cusp of womanhood, Prospero whips up the title storm that shipwrecks his enemies onto the sands he commands. He seeks vengeance, aided by the ethereal sprite Ariel (Kate Bode) who, as is the villainous monster Caliban (Chris Teller), is bound as a slave to Prospero’s bidding.
Now, who, really, is Prospero?
Common wisdom is that he is the alter ego of Shakespeare himself. The parallel when “The Tempest” was written and first performed, in the 1600’s, is that both were nearer the end than the beginning. At the conclusion of “The Tempest,” Prospero gives up his magic and his books that made it possible. Within a few years after writing ”The Tempest,” Shakespeare retired.
Send in the geezers.
Shakespearean scholar George McMullan has written, “The role of Prospero … is one that Shakespearean actors of a certain stature … aspire toward the end of their career.” Which puts me in the company of Sir John Gielgud, Charles Laughton, and John Cassavetes; you know, that crowd.
And all of those guys are dead.
So, how to play Prospero, rehearse him?
We just started this week. Thus we have, at this writing, been buffeted by “The Tempest” for only a few days. Yet some things never change.
First, learn the lines. Prospero has a ton of ‘em.
“The Tempest” is a short play, but Prospero begins and ends it, and between his first entrance and final exit has more to say than any other of its characters. He’s a major storyteller, charged with the dishing out much of the exposition that explains what’s going on.
As any actor will tell you, you can’t play the part till you own the words. Once you have those in your head, take a cue from James Cagney: plant your feet, look the other guy in the eye, and tell the truth; or, as Spencer Tracy once said, know your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.
Here comes the homework, the memorization, the nigh total abandoning of any semblance of personal life. Prospero delivers some huge monologues that can’t be mailed in. Making huge monologues interesting will be one of my challenges.
One should never kid oneself about the supposed romance and glamour of theater. It’s work, and requires a singular dedication to sweating it out till the job’s done. Which it never is. Acting is evolution. The more an actor develops a character, the more the character changes. That’s what makes characters interesting.
What, then, does Prospero want? What are his objectives?
One is to exact revenge; another, to protect his only child. Yet as enraged as Prospero is against those who have heaped injustices upon him, he is capable, in time, of forgiveness.
Beatlesesque, I’ll get by with a little help from my friends. Pigeon Creek’s “Tempest” does not have a director. It has directors. All of us.
The show is being “ensemble directed,” meaning each individual actor will have input from the rest in the cast. Being used to the benign dictatorship of a single director as opposed to this dramatic democracy, a Shakespearean lending of my ears (“Julius Caesar”) will not be amiss. May 2, at our first group reading of “The Tempest,” Pigeon Creek cofounder and executive director Katherine Mayberry explained that ensemble directing is how Shakespeare’s own acting company, the King’s Men,” went about its business. Pigeon Creek is an “original practices” Shakespeare troupe. As such, it stages plays in the same manner they were done when Shakespeare lived.
Taking direction from other actors — normally verboten in theater, to the point of getting an offender kicked out of the show — will be a first for me; not only with Pigeon Creek, but ever, and I’ve performed in a bunch of plays since my 1978 debut. Both previous Pigeon Creek productions in which I’ve performed — as Gloucester in “King Lear” and as the Ghost/First Player/Player King/Priest in “Hamlet,” had directors, respectively Tom Harryman and Mayberry.
This new gig should be interesting.
So far there’s been a lot of laughter. So far. Is that the acrimony of anarchy I hear rumbling, thunder-like, in the distance? Nah.
Wonder how Christopher Plummer’s dealing with this whole Prospero thing.
On second thought, better not call ‘im.
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” Prospero says. “And our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
Sleep? Being that Prospero’s from Italy, fuggedaboutit.
My revels, for now, are ended.