T he Tempest is Shakespeare's most musical play, with more songs, dances, and ethereal noises than any other. The success of this production, at Seattle Shakespeare Company, is in its composers: Jesse Sykes and Phil Wandscher. The local musicians (from the band Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter) understand that the vital element of any piece of music is a simple melody. Everything else can be complicated, but the melody, the moment of return, must provide an effortless enjoyment. The beautiful melody that runs through this Tempest has a dreamy background of dublike effects, which complement the magical aspects of the story: the illusions, spells, and tricks of light and words.
My usual reading of The Tempest has been from the position of postcolonialism, particularly that of the negritude poet Aimé Césaire. He saw the play in the class terms of a colonizer, Prospero, and the colonized, Caliban and Ariel—Caliban represents the brutish underclass and Ariel the enlightened middle class. Director George Mount completely abandons these colonial themes and focuses on the theme of senescence. Prospero is at the end of his life and his powers are waning. He grants his daughter and Ariel their freedom because youth is on their side. Hana Lass performs Ariel with great energy and enthusiasm, and Michael Winters performs Prospero with the air of someone who is terminally ill (I believe he even coughed a few times). He is a man who is soon to meet his end and is saying good-bye to the magic show of existence.
What's strange about this production is its presentation of Ariel. Usually we imagine Ariel to be made of air and light. This is not the case with Lass's acting and attire. Her Ariel is grounded and dark, earthy and moody. She seems more witchy than angelic. This interpretation is problematic because it weakens the distinction between the two slaves. Caliban and Ariel end up being not that different from each other, making Ariel's immaterial labor (brain power) more at one with Caliban's physical labor (body power). But it was Shakespeare's political brilliance (or prescience) to recognize the difference between the two: Ariel strikes a bargain with Prospero, whereas Caliban plots to kill him. This links the play to a political condition emerging at the dawn of capitalism, as mental labor (bookkeeping, engineering, navigation) was becoming increasingly privileged and physical labor was becoming increasingly denigrated. But this line of criticism leads me away from this production and all the way back to my original position: a postcolonial critique of the play.