Hell Is Empty

Shakespeare is not about words.

There’s no denying that his language is some of the most extraordinary ever recorded. But some of the most searing, breathtaking renditions of his work keep very little of it intact. The three best Shakespeare movies are Kurosawa’s extraordinary interpretations—The Bad Sleep Well (Hamlet), Throne of Blood (Macbeth) and Ran (Lear)—which translate verbal and video vernacular into Japanese. What thrills about Shakespeare is not his way with words but his deep understanding of how humans operate. Has there ever been a greater testament of the whirling, dangerous dance of first love than Romeo and Juliet? A more dead-on characterization of absolute power corrupting absolutely than Richard III? A truer portrait of non-conformity than Katherina in Taming of the Shrew?

It’s that empathy, that distillation of what motivates our breath and heartbeats, that makes Shakespeare so vibrant 500 years later, and it’s also what makes the plays translate so beautifully to dance. Prokofiev’s score and Kenneth McMillan’s choreography make R&J a completely new experience, giving us new insight into those characters who never open their mouths. Tonight, in the gorgeous piece The Tempest Replica, I saw choreographer Cristal Pite’s haunting vision of that final play danced and acted flawlessly by her company, Kidd Pivot.

Pite comes from ballet, and it’s evident in her movement vocabulary. Her dancers exhibit a control of their spines and feet that can only come from rigorous ballet training. But the action of the bodies requires the dissonance and angularity associated with modern masters, including Cunningham, Taylor, and Graham. Pite has no limits, neither in her inspirations nor her imagination.

And the threads that she has chosen to pull forward out of Shakespeare’s tapestry give an entire new reading to the play. The beautifully designed production makes brilliant use of projected titles of selected lines—only a few—as well as certain spoken motifs woven into the evocative soundtrack. She never once references “this rough magic”, perhaps the most famous phrase in the play, but one that is misleading. The Tempest is not about magic, but about the tyranny of reality, and this one is about the struggle to triumph over authority, to be free. Prospero is a puppet master, as enslaved by his own ideas and terrors as are his family, including of course his daughter but also the two spirits, Ariel and Caliban. In this rendering, it’s clear that Prospero and the brother who exiled him share a pathological need for control; it’s no wonder they clashed with such inexorable force.

What is so good and beautiful about this production is that it never once resorts to trickery, but makes full use of theatrical showmanship. Within the first few minutes, Prospero commands Ariel to create a storm; he hands her a paper crane, she shoves it into her mouth, and at that precise second a terrifying clap of thunder resounds through the quiet theater and a storm is created. Those moments show an imagination so unbridled, so limitless, it might bring tears to your eyes. It did to mine.

A few impressions: Prospero’s gesture, head in hands expressing a terrible sorrow he is incapable of feeling, repeated by Ariel, Miranda, and Caliban, all of whom feel it to their cores. Caliban’s dance with Prospero, to whom he will remain enslaved because he will never be able to believe in freedom. Ariel whipping her body around in a death spiral as her childlike voice whispers into the soundtrack, “Hell is empty. All the devils are here.” Miranda and Ferdinand’s joyous jitterbug, unhampered by their white, insect-like masks. Prospero entwining his daughter’s legs in a farewell embrace as her baby feet, projected on the screen behind them, take their first faltering steps away from him. Ariel’s wings in shadowy silhouette. Prospero’s release.

This is beauty. This is truth. This is theater that can change the way you see Shakespeare, the way you see your own relationships, the way you see the world.

See it if you can.


One thought on “Hell Is Empty

  1. Have you read any of The Invention of the Human (Harold Bloom)? He’s in tune with your assertion that Shakespeare’s characters are what really distinguish his work. That dance performance sounds intriguing.

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