'Happy wrecks'?
Staging Storms and Tempests in Shakespeare’s Comedies

Convenors: Boika Sokolova (University of Notre Dame (USA) in England, UK) and Nicoleta Cinpoes (University of Worcester, UK)

"What is this world, but a sea, wherein wee nauigate and are in continuall danger; Nay, the sea is so variable, so inconstant and so outrageous? For if we haue neuer so little respite, peace and rest, (like as when the sea is calm and quiet) presently there arise such violent whirle winds, storms and furious tempests, as it seemeth oftentimes, that heauen, earth, and all the elements conspire and runne together to work our ruin…And when [it] becommeth most calme and gentle…, then it is most false unto us, and then are we in greatest danger." Peter de la Primaudaye, 1618.

The aim of this seminar is to explore ‘storms and furious tempests’ in post-1990 stage, film and TV productions of Shakespeare’s comedies. It sets out to investigate the ways in which productions negotiate meaning within specific historical, geographical, cultural and linguistic contexts when engaging with (or cutting) Shakespeare's scripted 'storms', "tempests" and ‘wracks’ in comedies ranging from The Comedy of Errors to the late romances. We welcome contributions for papers of maximum 3,000 words that reflect on some of the following questions:

  • What work do storms and tempests do in particular stage, film or TV productions?
  • How have they been created with a view to the respective medium/a?
  • How do the visual images relate to the other interpretive means of the productions?
  • How do they meaningfully punctuate the action and its development?
  • What is their visual and emotional impact on the worlds they affect – the ones destroyed, the ones created, the ones left behind and the ones discovered – and on the characters who survive them?
  • How do they problematise identities–gender, genre, national, media? Have they been used for the particular illumination of any of these/or other issues??
  • Do they have any particular politics? Do they comment on cultural context in which the performance belongs? How are they configured and how do they reconfigure (their own) historical and performative contexts?


“‘Unhappy Wrack’: Re-Reading The Tempest in New Millennium Poland”
Lawrence Guntner and Mateusz Targanski
Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan 

With the words “my ending is despair” the director, who also plays one of the two Ariels, closes this production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, directed and performed by The Shakespeers, the student drama group at the English Department of the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan.  Re-read  within the context of the rise in fringe nationalist parties in Europe in general and Poland in particular, Prospero’s „isle full of noises” is not informed by forgiveness and mercy but by a radical demand for justice that shrouds a world view governed by hate and a lust for power.  Prospero, a latter day Joseph Goebbels, exploits the aboriginal inhabitants in the manner reminiscent of a 19th century colonialist.  The storm that opens the action is a ritualistic dance that circles the stage, inviting the audience to participate in this world but warning them of “the otherness" they are about to encounter.  In the process the performance raises questions about evil, gender, race and modern day imperialism.


“No ‘happy wrecks’ – Pessimism and suffering in William Shakespeare’s comedies and romances staged in contemporary Polish theatre”
Aleksandra Sakowska
King’s College, London

In 1989 Poland went through a momentous political tempest, bringing long-awaited freedom and democracy. But the huge ‘sea-change’ that swept through not only Poland but the whole of Eastern Europe was a cause of celebration only initially. Soon even those who engineered Poland’s political storm, leading to its sovereignty, went their separate ways or became vicious enemies. But young generations of Poles quickly opened to ‘the brave new world’ of Western democracy, liberal economy and lifestyle, and embraced the social freedoms it brought, especially in the realm of self-expression and sex.

This is particularly visible in the work of young Polish theatre directors. They are deeply disillusioned with their life in Poland. They question middle-class hypocrisy about sexuality, family violence and xenophobia, on the one hand, while weighing the meaning of Polish identity and national myths. When one considers the conservatism currently predominant in Polish society, especially in the realm of human corporeality and sexuality, with the added control of the Catholic Church and governmental moral censorship, it is easier to understand why the young generation desires to portray the very things feared and suppressed by society.

The young theatre directors reread the classics, challenging traditional interpretations and staging. Shakespeare is still seen by them as the most effective lens to express the contemporary angst. They are even less optimistic about the world they live in than their predecessors of the ‘Theatre of Allusion’. The world they portray especially in Shakespeare’s comedies and romances is bleak and troubling, or even tragic and brutal. They refuse to just entertain or gently poke fun. In the two productions which are subject of my paper, namely Krzysztof Warlikowski’s The Tempest and Michal Borczuch’s Twelfth Night you will find little comedy. There are no ‘happy wrecks’ in their productions - as if they wanted to say that the world is not a happy place right now and there is no escape. Poland is not an Arcadia.


“Happy and Unhappy Wrecks: Sea Changes in a Bulgarian Tempest”
Boika Sokolova
Notre Dame University (USA) in London

Alexander Morfov’s Tempest first erupted on the stage in Sofia in 1992, bringing to the ‘wide and universal theatre’ playing its passions in the city streets, a refreshing touch of artistic élan.  This early production treated the play as a fairy-tale and the stage as a playground for the irresistible energies of a new generation of theatre makers. In a declaration of arrival, it challenged traditional ways of acting through virtuoso displays of physicality and improvisation. As for the ‘reading’ of the play, the text was mostly thrown out of the window.  In the volatile atmosphere of the first post-communist years, full of hope and enthusiasm, the young director offered a non-illusionistic image, of a future of freedom, whose blue-tinged horizon was already visible in the background of the stage set. The production made a huge wave in the cultural seascape and Morfov was soon propelled to the post of artistic director of the Ivan Vazov National Theatre in Sofia, thus taking a leap from the irreverent fringe to the very centre of the theatrical establishment. Between 1996 and 2000, he mounted there two more versions of Shakespeare’s play marking al departure from the happy-go-lucky mood characteristic of the earlier production. Morfov’s rendition of 2000 was a sobered, gloomy reflection on a world where tales can offer only a temporary escape from a relentlessly depressing state of being.

My paper discusses how these contrasting versions of The Tempest configured the play’s world as the storms morphed from a promise for freedom to a melancholy tale of being marooned in a miserable existence.


“The Preposterous Postness of Being: the Case of a Bulgarian Adaptation of The Tempest”
George Niagolov
University of Sofia, Bulgaria

It has been acknowledged that following the political changes of 1989 The Tempest has noticeably engaged the interest of Bulgarian theatre directors and audiences. The play has undergone numerous productions and various adaptations inscribing into Shakespeare’s drama the thrill and trauma of the Bulgarian cultural condition in a period of transition from totalitarian communism to underdeveloped capitalism. The proposed paper continues this discussion by exploring Stefan Moskov’s recent Bad Weather Makes a Good Story – an adaptation (rather a complete rewriting) of The Tempest. In Moskov’s characteristic style the production dismantles and derides all familiar structures, jumbles registers, and drives the audience to the very verge of absurdity. Francis Drake defeated the Spanish Armada and became famous. People lost interest in theatre and sailed off to explore new territories. To avenge himself Shakespeare invented an island (he discovered it before Drake) and populated it with strange creatures and happenings. The characters are ordinary people from the street (an allusion to Moskov’s well-known Monty-Python-like sketch comedy TV programme The Street) who stop by a theatre poster advertising The Tempest and enter their own version of the play. The Bard appears on the stage hidden behind a cliché mask nervously inquiring “Who am I, he, she or they?” and scolding the actors for their deviations from his text. Then, his mother turns up to scold him and call him home for supper. In a word: Moskov’s Bad Weather is an extreme example of art tempestuously liberating itself from all constraints – a preposterous post-Shakespeare which holds a mirror up to the curious case of contemporary Bulgarians who have eventually found themselves washed out upon a post-colonial, post-communist, postmodern, post-structural, post-ideological, post-rational, post-literate, post-etcetera bank and shoal of time.


“(Ship)wrecked Shakespeare in Romanian Tempests”
Nicoleta Cinpoes
University of Worcester, UK

Whether banished to a desert island, i.e. the Romanian Presidential Palace in Nona Ciobanu’s 2008 production, a narcissistic and over luxuriant theatrical storm 'in a cup half full' in Catalina Buzoianu’s 2009 stage version, shipwrecked in the drawing-room in Victor Ioan Frunza’s 2010 production for 4 actors and 15 parts, or sand-box play, as in Cristi Juncu’s 2010 'Shakespeare in pyjamas', The Tempest has become the fertile terrain for exploring the current function of Shakespeare and theatre in Romania. This paper discusses the recently discovered topicality of The Tempest in productions that streamline the playscript in new translations, put it to music and/or simply re-mediate it through videoart or dance, and whose (remembered) storms are the distant promises of change in a world trapped by stasis.


“‘And now the Shipping Forecast’: Performative configurations and negotiations of The Tempest and its storm”
Bernadette Cochrane
University of Queensland, Australia

Acknowledging The Tempest as one of the most theatrically self-aware of Shakespeare’s plays is a commonplace; recognizing that the questions of governance and authority which permeate the playtext are foreshadowed in act 1, scene 1 is all but critical platitude.

However, the importance of the storm regarding theatrical reflexivity (at both the level of story and structure) has received rather less attention – both critically and performatively.  Although structure intersects story at the level of narrativization, its primary function relates to mechanism of form and to an axiology of formal elements in the text delineating the overall shaping of the work. This paper examines the proposition that act 1, scene 1 inaugurates, defines, and configures the metatheatrical and performative conditions of the playtext itself.

The argument is developed in relationship to the Royal Shakespeare Company 2006 production of The Tempest, in which, at the outset, stage effects are used to transport the audience from a culturally familiar climatic reference (the weather forecast) into an interior climatic event initiating the mimesis.  This initial proposition, in one gesture, both formalises and internalises the relationship between nature and its structural significance to the work.  

The Tempest’s storm provides a propositional device situating itself as a structural incitement for both the play as a whole, and the processes of theatrical form.


“A Bridge Project over troubled waters:  in which ocean was Prospero’s storm in 2010?”
Michael Dobson
Birkbeck College, University of London, UK

During 2010 Sam Mendes’ Bridge Project, a venture seeking to mount classical plays with mixed British and North American casts, mounted a touring production of The Tempest, staged back-to-back with As You Like It.  Like the previous year’s The Winter’s Tale and The Cherry Orchard, this show made its longest stops at its home ports of New York (at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) and London (at the Old Vic), and the choice of The Tempest seemed designed to underline this company’s preoccupation with the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the US: here was a play with transatlantic origins, being performed on either side of the Atlantic by a transatlantic cast under the guidance of a conspicuously transatlantic director. But this show also toured to Holland, France, Germany, Singapore and Hong Kong, and even in NATO-obsessed London the cultural politics of its representations of travel, trauma and shipwreck were by no means easy to read. This paper will examine the reception of Mendes’ Tempest at different stages of its global journey in an attempt to tease out, in particular, what its particular rendering of the opening storm scene meant for the inhabitants of shores as distant from Bermuda as from Bermondsey.


“Magic Storm on Television: the Case of The Tempest”
Jacek Fabiszak and Natalia Brzozowska
Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland

The aim of this paper will be to look at the representation of the storm in selected television versions of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Special attention will be paid to Polish TV productions in the context of other film and telegenic renderings of the play. Of course, the specific nature of the tragicomedy and the position of the sea storm and shipwreck in particular will be a starting point for the discussion of how television aesthetics shapes the representation of storms on the small screen. The following questions will be posited: whether the teleplay draws more on the filmic codes or theatre-oriented ones; what the place of television genres is and how they inform the framing of storms; how the genres relate to the nature of the storms in Shakespeare’s (Last) plays. Consequently, one needs to address the unnatural, supernatural and oneiric nature of Shakespeare’s Last Plays as well as the status of Prospero’s art that make the storm a magic phenomenon, yet one which – in the eyes of Miranda as well as the characters aboard the ship – appears a most realistic, indeed tangibly real element. This leads to the problem of realism in the triad of stage-television-film which will need to be addressed, too: how the producers managed to render this double nature of the reception of the storm by the characters in the play.

“Behind the Scenes: Penn & Teller, Taymor and the Tempest Divide”
Dr Kevin A. Quarmby
Shakespeare’s Globe, London

For its 2010 audience, Julie Taymor’s film The Tempest, starring Helen Mirren as Prospero, offers an expressionistic representation of a storm at sea. Clouds billow across the island and ocean as Mirren, herself tossed and tousled by the raging wind, conjures the natural fury. The theatrical is made hyper-real for this filmic encounter with the elements.

Taymor’s movie appears in stark contrast to her earlier evocation of the storm-tossed ship at sea. In 1992, an obscure US children’s television programme called 'Behind the Scenes’ added its own theatrical portrayal of the storm. In this programme, hosted by the magicians and entertainers Penn & Teller, Julie Taymor presented staged studio excerpts of The Tempest for a TV audience. This time, Taymor employs conventional and unconventional theatrical devices, similar to those adopted by generations of Shakespeare directors and designers. Her 1992 Tempest storm is as impressionistic as her twenty-first century film is expressionistic.

This paper discusses how radical staged versions of Shakespearean ‘storms’, ‘tempests’ and ‘wracks’ might appear, when compared with their filmic counterparts. It will draw on other British productions enacted during the first decade of the twenty-first century, most notably Patrick Stewart’s Tempest at the RSC. It will discuss how the dramatic representation of the storm, adapted to accommodate the frame of the proscenium arch, might be altering in an age dominated by thrust stages, audience involvement and the quest for filmic realism.


“Drop by Drop: Greenaway’s Shakespearean Transformations”
Antonella Piazza & Maria Izzo
University of Salerno, Italy

The paper will present representations of watery and maritime dimensions in Greenaway’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and will explore different choices of translation of Shakespeare’s sea from figures of speech to ‘moving images’. The happy wreck of Greenaway’s ‘tempest’ will be explored by comparing and contrasting it with the water poetics of the movie director, masterfully expressed in his multimedia theatre performance The Blue Planet (2009).

In 1991 Peter Greenaway adapted Shakespeare’s The Tempest to the silver screen in his technologically innovative Prospero’s Books. In the opening scene, Greenaway demonstrates his artistry by depicting Prospero arranging the tempest and its resulting shipwreck. With the help of Ariel and a large cast of nude spirits, Prospero sinks a tiny toy boat in a pool within his palace, seeing the fear of the boat’s crew only in his head. There is no indication that the storm occurs anyplace besides Prospero’s imagination. Greenaway stages this fantastic scene with layers upon layers of action. Building upon The Tempest’s constant awareness of its own fictional status, Prospero’s Books continually stresses artificiality and performance.

But Greenaway is more than a narcissistic formalist. Unlike any other Tempest filmmaker, he brings an intellectual's stiletto immediacy to Shakespeare's main themes. He grounds the movie in the four elements. Shakespeare-Prospero's vision of the drama grows from a single drop of water, recurring in magnified close up between the credit titles. The water motif then undergoes sundry variations. Like Prospero turning the raw resources of his island into fruitfulness and magic, Greenaway parades his materials before transfiguring them into a stormy exhibition of images, nude figures, literary and pictorial references, colors and words.

The filmmaker, the Twentieth century Prospero, creator and manipulator of forms and meanings, recognizes anxiously to occupy a threshold in a tempestuous process of change which, started with the Gutenberg revolution in Shakespeare’s times, brings to the contemporary electronic technologies of communication and reproduction.*

*Cf. Peter Donaldson, “Shakespeare in the Age of post-Mechanical Reproduction: Sexual and Electronic Magic in Prospero’s Books”in Lynda Boose and Richard Burt (eds.), Shakespeare in the Movie: Popularizing the plays on Film, TV and Video, Routledge, London and NewYork, 1997.


“The Tempest's Dream: Stormy Meta-theatricality in Georges Lavaudant's La tempête...”
Dana Monah
Paris-Sorbonne University, France

Fantastically clad in their (mock) Renaissance costumes, Alonso and his companions seem to have descended on Georges Lavaudant's bare, abstract stage directly from Shakespeare's The Tempest. Utterly confused and a bit … dusty, fighting against an immaterial storm - made of modern lightning and noise effects - the unfortunate shipwrecks are to be taken for puppets in Prospero's first theatrical illusion. The director reverses the order of the first two scenes, emphasizing thus the dramatic quality of his storm.

This paper looks at the modalities in which the visual treatment of the storm scene affects the production as a whole, as the theatrical tempest transforms into a tempest of theatricality when Prospero casts the shipwrecks as characters in A Midsummer Night's Dream - the wedding present  he offers to Miranda and Ferdinand.


“Lucina and Thaisa: Mothers Lost at Sea in Pericles”
Monica Matei-Chesnoiu
Ovidius University, Constanta, Romania

This essay explores the cultural changes affecting representations of maternity in the early modern period by discussing the analogies existing between Thaisa – the mother figure in Pericles – and the corresponding characters from two intertextual variants of the Hellenistic romance of Apollonius of Tyre: the Latin verse narrative by Jacob Falckenburgk (London, 1585) and Twyne’s prose romance (1594; 1607). Drawing on the Pericles/Apollonius tales – the play and its Latin verse and English prose intertexts – this essay considers Lori Humphrey Newcomb’s concept of “feminization of romance,”* especially in the context of the Latin variant of the story. Both versions of the Apollonius narrative – the verse (Falckenburgk) and the prose romance (Twyne) – converge in highlighting the maternal power character of Lucina – while the authors of Pericles operate a conversion: the daughter (Tarsia) becomes the mother (Thaisa) and thus the focus shifts to the mother-daughter relationship. The study further considers representations of the mother lost at sea in post-1990 Romanian productions of Pericles, highlighting the ways in which the stage constructs dramatic images of maternal behaviour that combine the erratic geography of Greek romance with the stability and certainty of life at home.    

*Lori Humphrey Newcomb, “The Sources of Romance, the Generation of Stories and the Patterns of the Pericles Tales,” in Staging Early Modern Romance, edited by Mary Ellen Lamb and Valerie Wayne, 21-48 (London: Routledge, 2009), 22.