Alex Woolf


Tempestuous Tunes; Tempestuous Times

Today, the Three Tempestuous Tunes I wrote back in 2012 are happening in the US for the second time. I'm delighted that these songs have had such a happy and varied life so far; after appearing on Nicky Spence and Malcolm Martineau's album As You Like It, they've had outings in Statford-upon-Avon for the Shakespeare 400 celebrations (which I wrote a little about here) and in California. This time around, the venue is Manhattan, Kansas, and I'm thrilled that Chris Thompson is performing them.  

The songs are settings of passages from acts 2 and 3 of The Tempest. Amidst the madness of the past few days, it's more than a little comforting to know that the ubiquity of such things as music-making and Shakespeare doggedly refuses to be, ehem, trumped. The strange and beautiful timing of this performance – taking place in a ruby-red Republican stronghold, no less – did, however, get me thinking a bit about those Shakespearean nuggets of wisdom which seem to cut across time. If nothing else, it's been a cathartic distraction from the relentless noise. Caught between a shock and a Bard place, I've tried to focus on the latter.

There are certainly strands in The Tempest itself which stand out as relevant – in fact, the final passage that I set for these songs seems spookily apt. It's Caliban's moment of giddy, drunken self-assertion, wherein he declares his hard labour to be over ('No more dams I'll make for fish...'). He exclaims, 'Caliban has a new master. Get a new man. Freedom, hey-day! Hey-day, freedom! Freedom, hey-day, freedom!' Even as Caliban ecstatically hails his new-found liberation from servitude (to Prospero), he willingly casts himself as subject to a new power (Stephano). Later he offers to lick his new master's shoe. It's not hard to relate Caliban's apparent cognitive dissonance to the conditions which created President Trump: Caliban is so resentful of Prospero's authority that he is happy to obey a new master in order to achieve 'freedom'; Trump's core supporters have similar zeal to escape the status quo, to such an extent that they will overlook demagoguery in pursuit of change. 

Beyond The Tempest, Shakespeare plays prophet with even more panache. In Richard III we observe the rise of a ruler categorically unfit to rule, a sociopath whose goal of attaining power at first seems impossibly remote. Richard compensates for his many insecurities through an unrelentingly 'braggadocious' disposition (to quote someone notoriously in possession of 'the best words'), his behaviour of course replete with rampant misogyny and bullying. Richard III shows power being attained not by violent means (as in Macbeth) but through deceit, the disparagement of opponents, and the exploitation of fears relating to national security. Even more striking is the unwitting complicity of those around Richard in his rise to the throne. The surrounding characters, representing the country more widely, are well aware of Richard's villainy, but they find the notion of his ambitions being realised so inconceivable that they are unable to recognise it until events are too far in motion to be reversed. And the relentless onslaught of his horrific behaviour results in a population desensitised to ghastliness, their voices smothered by a combination of fear and fatigue. At the moment of Richard's election, the people are silent, 'like dumb statues or breathing stones'. This silence is enough to crown a monster.

Trump may want to build a wall but Shakespeare saw the writing on it over 400 years ago. One can't help thinking that as millions awoke on Wednesday they 'cried to dream again', like Caliban at his most candid and poetic. But we might also draw hope from this: Shakespeare gives Caliban that most beautiful speech ('Be not afeared; the isle is full of noises...') at the very moment that the creature seems most debased, most ludicrous. It might just be a powerful reminder that at the most absurd of times, revealing insight and recourse to the beautiful may in fact be closer than ever.