Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

Ariel's Liberty

Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

Ariel's Liberty

Article excerpt

In Rupert Goold's RSC Tempest, set in the Arctic rather than on the traditional tropical island, Julian Bleach's Ariel skulks lugubriously through the three-hour production in a long, black, clerical robe, his face made up in pale white make-up. Described by reviewers as "the most compelling feature of the production," "eerie, sonorous, and utterly original," and a "brilliant re-imagining of Ariel [that] is destined to live longest in the mind," Bleach performs an Ariel unlike any that had ever been seen, and this in a four-hundred year old play as over-performed as The Tempest (Maxwell Cooter 1 March 2007, Charles Spencer 2 March 2007, Pete Wood August 2006). In reviewer David Benedict's words, Bleach was "mercifully unrecognizable from the traditional delicate sprite" (2 March 2007). For Michael Billington, he was "the defining spirit of a remarkable production" (10 August 2006). Bleach's Ariel, so radically refigured and yet, by most accounts, so successful and illuminating of the play, prompts me to ask a number of questions about how, exactly, an actor creates the character, "Ariel," out of the textual role. Is there, as Benedict claims, a "traditional" Ariel? Because of my interest in performance, I want first to situate Bleach's performance in relation to this tradition. How is it that the particular body and voice of a specific actor is a hermeneutic site that re-wrights the character in ways that are left undefined and unspecified by Shakespeare's ambiguous text? (1) How does Shakespeare write this character of "Ariel" so that it allows for Bleach's performance to break radically with recent performance history (save perhaps Simon Russell Beale's 1993 Ariel for Sam Mendes's production)?

Performed Ariels

Since its earliest performance, which likely featured an adolescent male actor as Ariel, both male and female actors of all ages, races, and sizes have used their bodies and voices to create, or author, new Ariels. Ariel was a "coveted female role" from the eighteenth century until well into the twentieth century, but has been played primarily by men or sometimes boys, with notable exceptions, since the mid-twentieth century (Dymkowski 34). As W. B. Worthen points out, the bodies of these actors themselves become like a text: "drama, in the theatre, is a means of 'textualizing' the body, making the body and its actions-gesture, movement speech-readable in specific ways" (24). Actors re-author characters every time they perform, and these characters are in turn seen by audiences--audiences that include directors and actors within them--whose understanding of a role like Ariel is rewritten with every new performance. Thus, actors create a genealogy for a role which is inherited by each new actor playing that role. Theatre reviewers and critics help preserve the memories of these actors' bodies in performance, turning the bodies back into texts in their reviews and performance histories.

If an audience member had seen every Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Tempest, she would have seen the fit, hyper-masculine and half naked bodies of Alan Badel (1951) and Duncan Bell (1988). (2) She also would have seen the androgynous, feminized Ariels of Ian Holm (1963), Ben Kingsley (1970), and Mark Rylance (1982). There have been plenty of female Ariels, too, including the sexpot version of Ariel, Margaret Leighton in 1952, whose costuming makes her look like a very naughty fairy indeed, but whose spirited resistance to Prospero, despite her femininity, troubled reviewers (Dymkowski 44). The bodies and costuming of each of these actors suggests an Ariel who is fit, agile, quick; the "traditional sprite" to which Benedict refers is clearly either a female, gossamer fairy or the related male, athletic, and Mercurial messenger. It seems that many recent actors have superimposed notions of fairies--who are like spirits--into their writing of a tradition of Ariel as a sprightly spirit who is light on his or her feet. …

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