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Hilltop: A Literary Paper. Volume 1 Number 3

"The Tempest" with Wood and String

page 25

"The Tempest" with Wood and String

In the beginning, there was a wooden head. A long high-browed and bearded head, simple in form, and beautiful. Next came the body—torso, arms and legs with stylized feet and hands, the whole but twenty-two inches in height. This was Prospero, the first and most important member of the cast. While he was being dressed in simple gown and cloak of goergette, the head of Miranda was being carved. A perfect oval on a slender neck, white face and hair of gold leaf conforming to the egg-like shape of the head. Her body was small and flexible and if Prospero's head was beautiful so Miranda's body had grace and perfection from the very beginning. She was clothed in a frock of deep red painted with white fleur de Es, saffron-yellow sleeves banded, and cuffed with green and gold metal cloth, and over all a pure white shift hanging in soft folds and belted with gold.

These two were animated with strings and became "beings" before the rest of the cast were considered. Together they had such dignity and grace that the opening words almost came unbidden—

"If by your art my dearest father you have put the wild waters in this roar—allay them...."

and the answer,

"Be collected—no more amazement. Tell your piteous heart there's no harm done."

Enthusiasm mounted and the cat grew with greater speed and confidence. Ariel, a wisp of silver limbs and white chiffon was the next to appear. Ah! Now the marionette comes into his own and Ariel can really fly, can actually appear from the air and hover there above the heads of Prospero and Miranda.

Next the comedian—Stephano with pendulous paunch and wooden bottle "which I made of the bark of a tree, with mine own hands since I was cast ashore." Here the art of stringing was learned. The short back string throwing the figure forward, the splayed legs permanently bent at the knees. All these details gave Stephano his lasting character. Caliban, rough-hewn and grotesque, with simian arms sweeping the floor and short bent legs supported by great feet—a hideous caricature who was later to be named as the favourite because he was so "real." Trinculo with his sad droll face was a worthy Trinculo to look at, but from the very beginning a trial to operate. If he was to sit, he would kneel; if he was to kneel, he'd fall flat on his face. He tangled his strings in his cap and bells and was difficult in every way that a puppet could be. It was sheer hard work and perseverance that finally subdued him. Ferdinand, Alonso and Antonio completed the cast and were dressed in velvet lames and fur to make up in colour and brilliance what they lacked in their contribution to the play. Ferdinand was another difficult character and his legs, exposed in tights, were made and remade before they could support his necessary dignity and beauty.

The scenes were now set. First a massive rock outlined against a changing cloudy sky. Next a green bank against tree-shapes on gauze with cyclorama behind. Then back to the rocky shore. Next solid tree-shapes cut in wood behind which Prospero appears to interrupt the scene between Ferdinand and Miranda. For the second comedy scene the tree curtains were drawn across the cyc., which was lit from below with a watery green. The last scene returned to the rock, the changes being made during the scene with light on the sky. Simple ? Yes, but easy to change during blackouts between scenes, and quite enough to make packing and transport a small problem. The rock, for instance, was about three feet at the base tapering to about two feet six in height, an awkward shape to pack.

Rehearsals at first were chaotic. To move a puppet with conviction is one thing, to speak for him another, and the combination of these two achievements took many months of practice. Each movement in so small a space had to be carefully planned, each 'picture' set. Sometimes the length of a speech could not be held and had to be cut. Often as rehearsals progressed and the play took shape, more dialogue was added.

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Incidental music from widely divergent sources was chosen, starting with Sibelius' Fifth Symphony to represent the storm over which the voices of the mariners called. Stravinsky's Fire Bird was Ariel's music, alternating with Daphnis and Chloe, snatches of L'Apresntidi d'un Faune, Love of Three Oranges and the Sorcerer's Apprentice. Anything, everything that could be found to give the particular atmosphere needed. Endless time was spent in experiment with light and music which were used as part of the pattern of production. The script for lights and music was a part learned by three or four people at one time and another and each time it grew more complicated and ambitious until it was a matter of split-second timing to cope with the dimmer and light switches, the volume control and needle-changing for music, and medium and scene-changes and effects. All the thousand-and-one backstage tasks usually allotted to a team of stage hands, had to be done by one.

It is hard to remember the first performance now that the hundredth is well past. The cast remained as it was with alterations in minor parts but the varied audience-reactions experienced affected the performance inevitably and with much constant repetition the emphasis changed. Four or five times during the six years of its performance The Tempest went into rehearsal. The scenery was altered, the costumes became more elaborate with re-dressing. Light and sound effects were added and the accumulation of bad habits and wrong words were corrected. Yes, they have worked hard, those wooden people.

They played at first to children, Secondary School children who wrote to tell what they thought of The Tempest and of puppets. Ariel was a favourite because she could fly and she laughed so beautifully. Caliban was, as I have said, so real. The "drunken sailor" Stephano was justly popular because he made them laugh. These school essays were very interesting and useful in those early days. Most of the children were asked by their teachers to compare the Marionette Theatre with their most constant form of entertainment—the film. The fact that the Theatre had third dimension was the most commonly noted. They, the puppets, were real, and, as in the cartoon of the screen, the characters that made the greatest impression were those that were caricatured. The heroes and heroines were shadowy and unreal by comparison.

The children were good audiences. They listened and laughed in the right places and on the whole enjoyed The Tempest in spite of their teachers who told them that they should enjoy it. The next period under the direction of A.E.W.S. was new ground and Miranda often made her opening speech to a chorus of whistles and catcalls from the back of an Army Camp Hall. Her dignity and unblushing wooden serenity carried her through this ordeal far better than if she were human. By the end of the first scene there was hardly ever a murmur. They won attention and admiration both for themselves and for Shakespeare from some of the hardest and toughest audiences.

During the next three years the Tempest was played throughout New Zealand and both to country audiences and to the more sophisticated city audiences. From this variety of experience their several characters were cemented and then became seasoned players. They had played the same play for six years to New Zealanders of every age and description. The pity was that circumstances did not allow them to enlarge their experience in other countries and to compare themselves with their contemporaries in England and America. Perhaps some day they may do this. Their faces and characteristics and their combined interpretation of the play are too firmly fixed in the memories of a few people to let them die. Prospero and Miranda, Ariel and Caliban. Stephano and Trinculo must walk again on the stage with freshly painted faces, new clothes and new masters and The Tempest will live again.