Shakespeare on Zoom: how a theatre group in isolation conjured up a Tempest



Madeleine MacMahon as ‘Sebastianne’ in a live production of The Tempest by Creation Theatre from 2019.
Creation Theatre/ Big Telly Theatre Company

Laura Jayne Wright, University of Oxford

While theatres remain closed, the way we watch Shakespeare is changing. When I picture the audiences Shakespeare would have written for, I think of the groundlings in Shakespeare in Love(1998). They stand, arms on the edges of the stage, staring upwards, eyes filled with tears – laughing, clapping, gasping. They are part of the show – and they show that they’re there. In the bright afternoon sun, the actors can see and hear every reaction.

Right now, of course, it’s not possible to take a trip to the playhouse. Still, with the National Theatre, the Globe, and the Really Useful Group moving quickly to put past performances online, the theatre can come to us via YouTube. We can see and hear the actors (and, having watched Hamlet, Jane Eyre and The Phantom of the Opera, I’ve been very grateful for it). But even though we can tweet our reactions, the actors can’t see or hear us.

The possibility of live performances during lockdown might change that. Over the Easter weekend, I watched an Oxford-based theatre company, Creation Theatre, and their co-producers at Big Telly Theatre Company from Portstewart in Northern Ireland, put on a production of The Tempest via video conferencing platform Zoom.

It seemed a tricky challenge under lockdown, with each cast member performing (and rehearsing) from home. Indeed, as chief executive and creative producer Lucy Askew warned before the play began, the night’s events were at the mercy of the technological gods.

But, when the play began and Ariel conjured a storm, suddenly it became clear that – despite our isolation – we too were part of the action. The audience’s microphones (muted while the actors spoke) were suddenly raised and we were asked to click our fingers to make it rain. The screen was full of audience members – and their pets, and their glasses of wine, and their pyjamas – and the storm was, even if I say so myself, convincing.

Within the space of an hour, the audience asked Antonio for answers via the chat function as he boasted of his usurpation of Prospero, we blew wind into the path of his ship and – in lieu of a banquet – all held up an offering of snacks (chocolate biscuits, from me). Each time other audience members appeared on screen, there was a rush of excitement as we got to see one another.

Listening to the island.

Shakespeare knew the importance of his audience’s reaction. At the end of The Tempest, Prospero relinquishes his magic and asks for something in return:

But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails.

It’s a moment when we are asked to make some noise – to clap with our “good hands”, to cheer (or whistle, or shout) with our “gentle breath”. Prospero’s redemption, if we allow him that possibility, comes from finally turning outwards, it comes from him seeing the necessity of his connection to others – to his daughter, to his once-forgotten subjects in Milan, and, perhaps, to us.

Yet, for all of the noise we made, this new medium exposed the myriad kinds of loneliness in The Tempest. Prospero sat in front of a backdrop of television screens, reminding us that we were all at one remove from one another. When Caliban described the noises of the island, the “Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not”, it was painfully apparent that he was alone and that there was nothing real to hear. When Ferdinand proposed to Miranda and reached from his screen to hers in an impressive feat of Zoom technology, that brief moment of “contact” was bittersweet.

After all, the despair of being alone is a fear which Prospero seeks to create. As ordered, Ariel deliberately scatters the shipwrecked courtiers across the island. Yet, as John Donne, a contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote:

No man is an island entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

The dispersed groups come back together – Prospero leaves his island exile, and returns home. It’s not a perfect resolution, and it’s not a happy ending, but it is, nonetheless, a reunion.

Somewhere new?

As site-specific, conference call plays go, The Tempest lends itself to such a production. It’s a play about isolation and exile, about characters moving around a small island without ever meeting one another. Creation’s performance did nothing to disguise its new medium. In fact, the most powerful part of the performance came as Prospero spoke the famous epilogue which begins: “Now my charms are all o’erthrown”.

The cast slowly and methodically packed up their bedsheet green screens and wiped off their makeup. They changed their onscreen identities from their character’s names back to their own. By the time we were invited to stay on Zoom for a moment or two, to catch up with friends, thank the actors, and wave goodbye, the spell was broken.

But the magic may not be entirely over, not least as the popularity of their performances have led to Creation extending its run. Moreover, The Tempest is not the only play offered in this new genre of “Zoom Shakespeare”. Another group of actors recently collaborated to create A Midsummer Night’s Stream, which they advertise not simply as a reading but a live performance, “adapted for our stage”. And there is no reason to think that “Zoom Theatre” will stick to Shakespeare.

While we will (to entirely misuse one of Prospero’s lines) return to a time when we “have no screen between this part he play’d/And him he play’d it for”, Zoom Theatre may not be a temporary measure. Perhaps new plays will be written with the possibilities of Zoom and YouTube in mind. For many, watching theatre from home will allow for greater access and comfort. And, for now, speaking back, making noise, and waving at strangers, could inject a bit of silliness into our own isolated worlds.The Conversation

Laura Jayne Wright, Stipendiary Lecturer in English, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Poetry has linked war and disease for centuries


Julia M. Wright, Dalhousie University

War has been widely used — and criticized — as a metaphor for dealing with COVID-19. But the metaphor didn’t come out of nowhere. Writers have long linked war and disease, and not only because war often contributes to the spread of disease.

In my study of British and Irish literature from around 1800, including writing about medicine, it’s clear that people struggled to understand disease without having evidence of bacteria or viruses. In a chapter on “Contagion” in his 1797 handbook on medicine, the physician Thomas Trotter even laughed at the suggestion that diseases were spread by “little animals.”

William Heath’s satirical drawing ‘Monster Soup’ in the British Museum shows artists in the early 1800s understood medicine and disease before technology.
(British Museum.), CC BY-NC-SA

Yet the idea persisted. In 1828, cartoon satirist William Heath imagined river water as “Monster Soup.” In 1854, English physician John Snow used what we might now call contact tracing to show that a London water pump was at the centre of a cholera outbreak. The same year, Italian physician Filippo Pacini used a microscope to identify the cause of the disease.

An easy step from disease to war

Writers were aware of public and research interests in medicine and drew on them, as in the familiar example of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818. Writers also used medical metaphors: for instance, William Blake called the influence of Greek and Latin literature a “general malady and infection.”

These writers are using figures of speech to link concepts together: war is like a storm, disease is like war, and disease is like a storm, spread through clouds of bad air, raining contagion.




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Metaphors aren’t simply decorative. They help explain unfamiliar ideas, and help us remember them by making them vivid or surprising. When Shakespeare had Hamlet talk about picking up weapons to fight “a sea of troubles,” he was communicating a sense of overwhelming odds. The metaphor was good enough to stick and is still widely used. Metaphors can also pass judgement, like Blake associating Greek and Latin literature with disease because it promoted war.

Writer and poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was one of many British writers who used storms as metaphors for battles which were, in turn, used as metaphors for diseases.
(National Portrait Gallery, London), CC BY-NC-SA

War was almost constant for Britain at this time, and writers often turned to thunderstorms to capture the terrible sound of battles. Blake’s 1793 poem about the American Revolutionary War describes the new United States as “darkned” by storm clouds while “Children take shelter from the lightnings” and leaders speak “in thunders.” A few years later, in his poem “Fears in Solitude,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about “Invasion, and the thunder and the shout.”

Medical writers of the era thought that bad air carried disease because they didn’t have the technology to see further. But they were able to connect the spread of disease with soldiers and ships. This made it an easy step from disease to war — with weather still in the mix.

In “Fears in Solitude,” Coleridge associated British imperialism with a spreading infection, carrying “to distant tribes slavery and pangs” “Like a cloud that travels on, / Steamed up from Cairo’s swamps of pestilence.” In “Adonais,” P.B. Shelley wrote of “vultures to the conqueror’s banner true … whose wings rain contagion.”

King Cholera goes to war

Two hundred years ago, disease wasn’t an “Invisible Enemy” or a “little animal”. It had power to kill, much like the kings who sent armies around the globe.

In her influential 1792 essay, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, English writer Mary Wollstonecraft wrote that “despots” are the source of a “baneful lurking gangrene” and lead to “contagion.” A quarter of a century later, the cholera pandemics began.

In John and Michael Banim’s 1831 poem “The Chaunt of the Cholera,” cholera doesn’t just “Breathe out the breath which maketh / A pest-house of the place.” It is a mercenary working for Europe’s monarchs: “Kings!–tell me my commission, / As from land to land I go.” Others, like English cartoonist John Leech, called the disease Lord Cholera or King Cholera.

John Leech’s cartoon showing the association of cholera with squalor. A child stands on his head on top of a rubbish heap in the left-hand corner. An old woman scavenges from the heap, another child shows off his own find, and washing flutters in the breeze overhead.
(Wellcome Library), CC BY

John Leech’s 1852 cartoon, “A Court for King Cholera,” relayed a message we’re hearing now: inequality feeds pandemics. The 1853 poem “King Cholera’s Procession” also details the unsanitary conditions of the urban poor while condemning “Those that rule” for being King Cholera’s “friends.”

In her 1826 novel about a devastating pandemic, The Last Man, Mary Shelley also links rulers, war, and disease. The plague “shot her unerring shafts over the earth,” a shower of arrows, and becomes “Queen of the World.” Shelley idealizes the leader “full of care” who doesn’t want victory — only “bloodless peace.”

The coming storm

To these writers, war was a metaphor for the problem, not the solution.

In our time, business media suggest “battle metaphors” are overused. We have television shows like Robot Wars and Storage Wars, training sessions called “bootcamps” and elections in “battleground states.”

War is all too real and devastating in many parts of our world. But as a metaphor it is worn out — perhaps no longer vivid, no longer explanatory. Writers such as Coleridge, the Shelleys, and Blake may have seen close connections between war and disease, but their work also hints at another possibility.

Instead of talking about a war on COVID-19, let’s consider those storm metaphors. We need to stay inside and wait for it to pass.

And, while we are, perhaps we can also look to the past for help in understanding our present. Before they had evidence of germs, they could see that war and inequality spread disease.The Conversation

Julia M. Wright, University Research Professor, Dalhousie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.