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One of the climactic (and most discussed) moments of the London Olympics opening ceremony was the speech Kenneth Branagh delivered whilst dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  In yesterday’s post , I discussed the way the ceremony represented British culture, and I’d like to spend a bit more time thinking about this extraordinary performance in particular. Standing on a green hill as the pounding drums foreshadowed the coming of the Industrial Revolution, just before chimneys grew through the landscape and the turf was sliced away to reveal steel tracks, he declared to the audience and people below him:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds 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.

As the BBC commentary informed us, the words are from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  On the surface, that was exactly their function: to be stirring words by Shakespeare which include the terms “isle” and “dream”, and conjured up a general sense of Britishness suitable for the occasion.  Just as, on one level, the purpose of performing Jerusalem immediately before this speech and Elgar’s “Nimrod” variation during it, was to provide tear-duct-tugging music by British composers to accompany the moment.  Part of the ceremony’s function was to offer up some sort of celebration of British culture to the world, and these are all excellent works.

Whilst that may be true, there was a lot more going on in this speech.  The words are not only Shakespeare’s, they are Caliban’s.  In its original context, the speech is made by the “monstrous” half-human creature to the shipwrecked men who have been tormenting him, as an explanation of the music being played by the invisible spirit Ariel.  Caliban has accepted one of the sailors as his master, and has just been trying to persuade him to kill Prospero, when Ariel takes advantage of his own invisibility to stir up arguments and confuse them with his music.

Why Caliban?  Obviously I can’t say why Danny Boyle chose this particular passage, but the choice is extremely suggestive.  It isn’t a speech by one of Shakespeare’s kings or heroes – it didn’t come from the mouth of Hamlet, or Prince Hal, or Prospero, the island wizard.  This is rather surprising, given that Kenneth Branagh is a Shakespearean actor in the “heroic” mould (who has himself played Hamlet and Hal) and was dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, an engineer who won second place in the 2002 “Greatest Britons” poll as a heroic symbol of the Industrial Revolution.  Boyle chose not to give Branagh/Brunel a speech which emphasized his dominance and cast him as a superhuman about to conquer nature, but a passage which stressed the wonder and uncertainty of the world.  Caliban’s words do not seek to define or dissect the mystery he experiences, but admit his own inability to comprehend them.  The speech sets Brunel amongst the people he’s speaking to: not a visionary who bent the world to his will, but a human who was amazed and even frightened by the forces which surrounded him.  Given Boyle’s borrowing of Lord of the Rings imagery to present industrialisation during the ensuing sequence, it’s telling that Brunel speaks as the wizard’s servant, not the magical master.

This makes more sense if we turn to the notes Boyle wrote for the ceremony programme.  They begin:

At some point in their histories, most nations experience a revolution that changes everything about them.  The United Kingdom had a revolution that changed the whole of human existence.

Boyle links together the Industrial Revolution and the digital revolution (both sparked by British men, in his account) as events which had the potential to change the world for everyone.  He ends the notes with this:

But we hope, too, that through all the noise and excitement you’ll glimpse a single golden thread of purpose – the idea of Jerusalem – of the better world, the world of real freedom and real equality, a world that can be built through the prosperity of industry, through the caring nation that built the welfare state, through the joyous energy of popular culture, through the dream of universal communication.  A belief that we can build Jerusalem.  And that it will be for everyone.

So Boyle’s choice of Caliban’s speech seems part of a wider attempt to reflect on particular events in British history (the Suffragettes, the founding of the NHS, the Windrush) and to suggest how we might glimpse universal values through the historical turmoil.  Certainly his direction of the Industrial Revolution sequence (for which he borrowed the name Pandaemonium, the hellish city in Paradise Lost) refused to imagine it either as the triumph of science over hostile nature, or the obliteration of the one true organic community.  For this show, the Industrial Revolution wasn’t something that Britain did for/to the world, but something which Britain experienced along with the world, in all its dislocation, horror and possibility.  In this imagined history, Caliban’s words coming from Brunel can offer comfort and reassurance, because they come from someone who is also afraid, also being worked on by forces he can neither understand nor control.

This is all immensely appealing to me, but I’m also aware that it involves a certain recasting of history – literary history as well as political history.  The Caliban of The Tempest is not simply an odd creature on an island, he is a half-monster, half-man who lived on the island until Prospero arrived, attempted to rape the wizard’s daughter, and has been subjugated as a result.  His name has echoes of Montaigne’s On Cannibals, and his character reflects the attitudes of European travellers to indigenous peoples at the beginning of the colonial era: he appears deformed, subhuman, sexually rapacious, violent, cringing and ignorant.  Caliban and Ariel both provide a continual focus in Shakespeare studies for postcolonial readings, and reflections upon the intersections between colonisation, resistance and culture – Caliban’s Voice: The Transformation of English in Postcolonial Literatures is a representative title.

Giving Caliban’s speech to Isambard Kingdom Brunel might seem to be robbing him once again, co-opting his words uttered in resistance for the purposes of reconciliation.  Because the Industrial Revolution wasn’t experienced in the same way by everyone it affected, and certainly some countries suffered vastly more negative effects than others, whilst Britain some classes suffered whilst others benefited.  Using a heroic actor dressed as an icon of industrial capitalism to speak the words of a colonised Shakespeare character might smack of a hurried assertion that we’re all equal now and everyone suffered in the past so let’s not trouble ourselves about it.

That wasn’t how I experienced the performance.  I felt it was so deliberately fantastical, such a consciously impossible mix of fictional characters and historical events, that Boyle was setting up a fantasy space.  Within that space Brunel could speak Caliban’s words in a subjunctive mood, a “what-if” reverie which recognised the incongruity between his image as a “Great Briton” (who only lost the top spot to Winston Churchill) invoked by those who complain that we don’t make anything in this bloody country anymore, and this moment in which he shared the anxieties of people who saw their world being destroyed by the factories.  It felt to me like a conscious wrestling with the historical traces and cultural memories being invoked, with Boyle refusing to reconcile them easily into a single image.  His stress on “dream” and his insistence that dreaming is a necessary, constructive process might well make him shy away from anything which suggested a single “true” British identity, so this visible tension between the figure and the words seems to embody the ideas expressed in the programme note.  But I am still aware that, for some spectators, it might have been less a visible tension and more an appropriation which made Caliban as invisible as the noises he marvelled at.

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