Shakespeare in Art: Tempests, Tyrants and Tragedy at Compton Verney

compton-verney-robinThe Compton Verney Sketching Trolley, stands in a stairwell stocked with pencils, drawing boards, paper. It would be easy to pass it by but there’s a printed page too: Faces and Feelings in Shakespeare is the heading. Not a kids’ activity but one for all ages. We’re encouraged to identify emotion in depictions of Shakespearean characters: fear, anger, love, sadness and betrayal are suggested.

This then is the perspective which informs the exhibition I have come to see. It’s designed as a theatrical experience which celebrates subjective responses to the poetry, drama and – above all – the emotional intensity of Shakespeare’s texts. I take this on board.Which is a bad, but wholly appropriate pun, because I go in through a very ordinary door and am immediately on board ship. It’s dim, the deck heaves under my feet, booming and cracking noises suggest the vessel is breaking up. I grasp that there’s a howling storm out there. And I’m face to face with Prospero’s ‘drown my book’ speech, half-lit on the wall.

I know the passage well. Or do I? When did I last close-read it? For the text springs into new life: this is a magic storm called up by a wizard who the power to ‘ope graves’ and raise the dead. And he’s angry. I’ve seen many Tempests over decades of theatre-going, but always from a safe, dry seat. Each time, in a mildly academic way, one wonders how they’re going to do the storm. But this is different: I’m part of it and it’s scary.

The guide says that the floor was designed with an irregular rake so that it seems to move and pitch. The ship’s planking is under-lit in some places, suggesting an unstable deck over a cavernous space below. The angle of the rake and the exact width of the spaces between planks was apparently a matter of some discussion when the exhibition was planned. Art must always be constrained by something and, in this case, Health and Safety concerns about trippings-up, stalling wheelchairs and skyscraper heels were the determining factors. The use of briny and tarry odours to enhance the sensory impact was also considered. But the potentially damaging effects of wafting chemical vapours on sensitive materials was regarded as too risky.

But now I’ve landed on the enchanted isle. Fragments from a larger canvas by George Ramsay show Ferdinand leaping ashore; Alonso, bedraggled and bewildered. Philip de Loutherbourg’s Shipwreck gives us a Ferdinand clinging to rocks and barely evading the grasp of a violently foaming wave. Here is Caliban from a 1978 painting, (Thou earth, thou!) a creature of the same tones of sand and mud from which he seems to have emerged. In a canvas by John Pierre Simon he is brutish and ugly with ape-like ears, while David Scott presents him as ponderous, earthbound, staggering under his load of firewood. The depiction of Ariel in all these works is in sharp contrast: the sprite is winged and floating, supple, sinuous and riding the air like an airborne dancer.

Now, Darwin is in my mind. Though On the Origin of Species did not appear until 1859 – he held back publication of his great work, rightly anticipating its establishment-rocking reception – a number of similar theories on the origins of man were circulating in the first half of the century. Frankenstein is surely in the mix too: hideous, homeless, rejected and mistreated by their father-figures, both the Mary Shelley’s Creature and Shakespeare’s Caliban crave acceptance and possess sensitivity and intelligence.

THE_TEMPEST_2110An_1717652iI can’t leave this section without gazing for some minutes at Anthony Sher’s depiction of himself in role as Prospero. Against a background of a custom rail of tribal masks, Sher crouches centre-stage balancing the all-powerful staff on a forefinger. The painting refers to a 2009 production of The Tempest in South Africa. But there are other levels of meaning here. Not all the masks are benevolent: some seem futuristic – eight eyed aliens – others bare their teeth menacingly. What is Sher saying? Something about the versatility of the actor who, in the blink of an eye, can assume any role? Power, certainly. But an ephemeral power, implied perhaps by the humble, disposable -plastic water bottle, placed before the great magician: a symbol of his mortality.

The Exhibition is divided into seven ’Acts’ and I pass on to Hamlet, a drowning woman and shades of Millais’ ‘Ophelia.’

For here is a life-size Ophelia, immersed. She’s slender, fragile, dressed in virgin white and clasping flowers. Her image wavers under the surface as tiny fish flit by. We have Gertrude’s detailed account of the event and again I am driven back to the text. Too often, Ophelia’s death is referred to as ‘suicide’. Not so. We last see her in the ‘mad scene’ where she is described as ‘distract’, ‘divided from herself and her fair judgement’. It’s the ‘poison of deep grief’ for her father that’s sent her over the edge, together with her rejection by Hamlet – another form of bereavement. She doesn’t drown herself but climbs a willow over a stream. An ‘envious sliver’ breaks and her sodden clothes bear her under.

The genius of this 2014 installation by the husband and wife team Davy and Kirsten McGuire, is that suddenly the apparently drowned figure stirs. Streams of bubbles erupt from nostrils and mouth and her limbs move frantically. Has the cold water brought her to her senses? Is she struggling for life? It is both moving and distressing, for the figure succumbs finally and sinks away. The cycle repeats itself while an endless recording of ‘Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day’ becomes more and more vexing and fraying to the nerves.

terryI am glad to turn to the 1888 John Singer Sargent painting of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth. This is the true face of a Tyrant. The Queen crowns herself in Napoleonic style, drawn up to an imposing height and glittering in the peacock blue and auburn robe, adorned with a thousand iridescent beetle wings, which Terry wore onstage. Her eyes are avid and full of triumph. There is no reference at all in the text to the Macbeth’s coronation: all is inferred by Sargent from the early scenes of the play where the voracious ambition of Lady Macbeth pushes her husband into regicide. It’s a breath-taking piece of imagination and execution, made more striking by the art deco frame commissioned by Sargent. This features the same Gaelic designs as appear in the Queen’s crown and period art deco footlights – with what care and attention to detail has this exhibition been planned! – illuminate the whole.

The lighter relief of A Midsummer Night’s Dream comprises Act 5. A sequence of photographs by David Farrell capture behind-the-scenes shots of Sir Peter Brook’s 1968 film of the play, shot entirely at Compton Verney itself. Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Ian Holm and Ian Richardson are all there. How young they look. Green leaves deck the roof of the gallery and birds twitter while I stare in fascination at Tom Hunter’s remarkable photographic remixes of The Dream, drawing on the venues and people of modern day Hackney.

Samba dancers, a thrash metal band and pole dancers appear in pieces such as And I Serve the Fairy Queen and The Course of True Love. Titania becomes a Samba Queen: sexy, rather sleazy and asleep on the green baize of a snooker table which hints playfully at the greenwood, while urban fairies watch over her. The triple wedding at the end of the play is held in a nightclub/pub setting – all lurex curtains and balloons. The fairies, mingled with the guests, watch on impassively. Another large installation is an urban brick wall which one has to examine closely to find the chink. It’s fresh, challenging and stimulating.

There’s much, much more. Most striking is the digitally rendered and animated Ariel which will appear in the production of The Tempest at the RSC this year. Theatre goes on and on, pushing the technical boundaries. And Shakespeare, as always, accommodates it.

I leave, walking down the long path from the gracious Compton Verney mansion to the lake and the bridge guarded by four  massively-clawed sphinxes. The air seems fresher here, swishing through the great cedar trees, envisaged  but never  actually seen by Capability Brown.

As usual, on leaving an exhibition, I feel as if I’ve only scratched the surface. But, in the current trendy term, I have been immersed.

Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistant

Thanks to Lorna Burslem for advice on sourcing images.

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