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The isle is full of noises: Caliban at the Olympics

The Games are upon us. After years of waiting, billions of pounds, massive hype, major security embarrassments and mounting public frenzy, the Olympics are underway and a huge success. And they began in fine style with a splendid opening ceremony that flattered Britain with a fantasy portrait of itself while managing to confuse everyone else.

Danny Boyle’s show was spectacular and played many familiar cards with a mostly original twist. The ceremony expectedly featured Blake’s Jerusalem, bucolic idylls, Elgar and Churchill and, more surprisingly, the Queen parachuting out of a helicopter. It also included some visually stunning effects and moments of pathos and beauty, notably Akram Khan’s tribute to the victims of the 7/7 bombings.

In many ways the Opening Ceremony was a four hour promotional video for UK PLC, with creativity our Unique Selling Point. To this end it displayed many of the things we invented such as a multitude of sports (at quite a few of which we are doing exceptionally well), the industrial revolution (though I think we should keep quiet about this), the NHS (Mitt Romney must have loved that sequence) and the World Wide Web (well done, Sir Tim). It also celebrated our creative genius when it comes to children’s literature (hello JK Rowling), pop music (doesn’t Sir Paul ever get tired of doing this kind of thing?) and of course, William Shakespeare. He glorified the English language and his great works helped carry it to every part of the globe, our greatest gift to world culture.
Having heard the Opening Ceremony was titled The Isles of Wonder it was to be assumed there would be reference either to John of Gaunt’s ‘sceptred isle’ speech or Caliban’s ‘this isle is full of noises.’ Boyle made the right call. Caliban is one of Shakespeare’s most interesting and complex creations and this speech particularly moving and beautiful,
Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises,
Sound and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

Caliban is many things and is called many names including ‘thing of darkness’, ‘deboshed fish’, ‘hagseed’ and ‘monster’. He regrets not having raped Miranda and incites Stephano to murder Prospero, yet the speech Branagh quoted shows Caliban to have been fully alive to the beauty of the island, especially its music – the ‘sound and sweet airs’ and ‘thousand twangling instruments’. In none of Shakespeare’s plays is music more integral or important. It is part of its magic. It leads Ferdinand to Miranda, charms Alonso and Gonzalo asleep and leads the drunks astray. That Caliban is more sensitive to it than Antonio and Sebastian suggests he is less bestial than they.
If Caliban is most responsive to music, he is also the character that most loves and understands the island. While Prospero refers to it as ‘bare’, Caliban offers to find Stephano and Trinculo berries and fish, crabs, pig nuts, marmosets, filberts and scammels. He also promises to show them where to find water, as he had once shown Prospero the ‘fresh springs’.

The question of who ‘owns’ the island is contentious. Prospero refers to himself as its ‘lord’ while Caliban is insistent that ‘by sorcery he got this isle/From me he got it.’ It is a troubling aspect of the play. For some Prospero is a colonizer who seizes the island from its sole inhabitant, forcing him into servitude, calling him ‘earth’, ‘filth’, ‘devil’ and ‘slave’. He subdues Caliban with violence, racking his body with ‘cramps’ and ‘aches’ and winding him around with adders who with ‘cloven tongues’ hiss him ‘into madness’. It is significant that when describing the music of the isle, Caliban says ‘it give delight and hurt not’ – pain having become inseparable from existence.

Others point out that the island was empty of people before Caliban’s mother Sycorax arrived. It’s also argued that the island is located somewhere between Italy and Tunisia – far from nascent colonies in India, America and the West Indies. This argument is paltry, particularly as it’s likely that Shakespeare’s main source for the play was an account of the wreck of the Sea Venture off Bermuda where its crew were stranded for ten months before building two small boats and continuing on their way to Virginia. The pamphlet, A Discovery of the Bermudas, otherwise called the Isle of Divels was written by one of the survivors and published in 1610 – the likely year Shakespeare wrote The Tempest.
The whole troubled question of Britain’s colonial past was not directly addressed in Danny Boyle’s opening extravaganza, but it was touched upon by reference to the Empire Windrush – the ship which carried 493 West Indian immigrants to Britain in 1948. And while it’s understandable that our imperial role did not feature in the Opening Ceremony, almost everything else did.

Shakespeare would have approved its showmanship and theatricality. For while it’s true that Tudor theatre was relatively spare in its presentation without scenery or elaborate stage effects, by the Jacobean period staging was far more concerned with artifice and visual display. It’s believed The Tempest was first performed indoors at the Blackfriar’s Theatre rather than outdoors at The Globe – the darkened theatre lit by candles giving greater scope for illusion and magical trickery. The play is full of both, from the storm which Prospero conjures in the opening scene to the banquet produced by fantastical creatures, which as magically vanishes. It is likely Ariel would have appeared on a trapeze, though this might have seemed rather pedestrian when compared to the entrance of Jupiter in another late play, Cymbeline. The stage note for this reads, ‘Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle. He throws a thunderbolt. The Ghosts fall on their knees.’ Nothing understated about that.

Shakespeare obviously enjoyed the theatricality of theatre and had the fireworks deployed by Boyle been readily available, no doubt he would have used them. It was, after all, the firing of a cannon ball into the thatched roof of the Globe during a performance of Henry VIII that caused it to burn down in 1613.

Shakespeare would have delighted in the Opening Ceremony’s flamboyant staginess. And along with everyone else, he would have been confused as to why Caliban’s speech should have been declaimed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Perhaps the choice was inspired by no more than its reference to an island full of ‘noises’. As one of our greatest engineers, Brunel would have spent his life surrounded by the clanking of iron and hammering of steel.

Perhaps it was in other ways appropriate. Like those on Prospero’s barren island, everyone here has arrived from somewhere else. Brunel’s father was a refugee from the French revolution who had first settled in America where he took citizenship, only later arriving in London. So the man voted number two in the BBC’s Greatest Britons poll was part French. Churchill (at number one), had an American mother, while the Queen is of German descent.

Of those others involved in the Opening Ceremony, Akram Khan’s parents moved to Britain from Bengal, JK Rowling’s forebears came from Alsace-Lorraine while Danny Boyle, Kenneth Branagh and Sir Paul all have origins in Ireland. Many of the athletes representing Britain will come from families who travelled from more distant parts of the world.

Of those who won medals on an extraordinary middle weekend of competition in the Olympic Stadium, Jessica Ennis has a Jamaican father, Mo Farah came here as a refugee from Somalia, aged 8 and Christine Ohuruogu’s parents are Nigerian. Greg Rutherford is English but his surname is Scottish and it’s a fair bet a few of his ancestors were Vikings who sailed here from Scandinavia many centuries ago.

This crowded isle is full of noises. It is also full of many languages. More than 290 are spoken in London alone. We are a mixed up and multifarious nation. This is not without problems, but we are all the better for it. I was lucky enough to be in the Stadium on Saturday night to see Britain win three gold medals in under sixty minutes. It was amazing theatre. I went with family, but by the end of the evening, the whole crowd felt like family. An unrepeatable experience. Great Opening Ceremony, Danny. Go Team GB!


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