Review: Miranda in Milan by Katharine Duckett

PROSPERO: Twelve year since, Miranda, twelve year since,
Thy father was the Duke of Milan and
A prince of power.
MIRANDA: Sir, are not you my father?
PROSPERO: Thy mother was a piece of virtue, and
She said thou wast my daughter.
— The Tempest, Act 1, Scene 2

These lines constitute the one and only mention of Miranda’s mother in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. As such, they open an intriguing gap: beyond being “a piece of virtue,” who was Miranda’s mother, and what happened to her? Many have tackled this question, with a variety of results. Literary critic Stephen Orgel used it to explore the anxiety around parentage for Shakespeare generally. Filmmaker Julie Taymor viewed it as a screenwriting problem, and solved it by making Prospero Miranda’s mother. Debut novella author Katharine Duckett, meanwhile, uses it as a jumping-off point for a queer Gothic romance, with Miranda’s mother one of many dark secrets at the heart of a Milanese castle. Inventive and dark, yet full of genuine heart, Miranda in Milan turns Shakespeare’s beloved text on its ear, creating something both more macabre and more liberating in the process.

The story picks up a few weeks after Shakespeare leaves off, with Miranda and Prospero’s return to Italy. While Prospero retreats immediately to his isolated study, Miranda finds herself “a monster.” Cut off from both her island home and her fiance Ferdinand, she is forced to hide from the world at large, servants “moving around her as though she were a cockroach,” a veil forced upon her whenever she leaves her chambers. Her only friend is the “Moorish” servant Dorothea, a self-confessed witch, and thus the only person “with nothing to fear from you or your father.” Yet there is very good reason to be afraid of Prospero. The wizard is back at his old tricks; the vow to drown his book has been broken. What else has Prospero lied about? What really happened to Miranda’s mother? And can Miranda escape the influence of the man who has scripted her entire life so far?

As all this implies, Miranda in Milan is an openly revisionist sequel to Shakespeare’s Tempest. Early on, Miranda reminisces about a much more sympathetic Caliban than readers may remember, and Duckett implies that the two were deliberately forced apart by Prospero. Ariel also makes a brief cameo appearance, in an even more ambivalent form than the original, and Duckett offers the intriguing detail that Miranda

“had wanted an Ariel of her own, once, an ethereal slave to do her bidding, like those under her father’s command. But when Prospero found her cultivating one of the small island spirits, he beat her until she was black and blue. Since that day, Miranda had learned to handle her own affairs.”

Prospero himself is the most obvious target of revisions, revealed by Duckett as an outright villain. Dorothea wakes Miranda up to his lifetime of manipulations, as she realises her memories are dotted with “Strange sights, inexplicable visions: and then sleep, a heavy, sudden sleep she never experienced here, on the mainland.” Readers of The Tempest will know that these sleeps were in fact magically-induced trances, meant to shut Miranda up while her father carried out his work, adding a sinister air to once-accepted stagecraft. Miranda ultimately realises that “Her father was a story he had told her himself”; Shakespeare’s version, it seems, was unreliably narrated.

Yet while the novella is intensely critical of Shakespeare’s old wizard, there is also a sense of affection and playfulness. There are nods to several Shakespeare plays, including As You Like It and Titus Andronicus as well as The Tempest. But the most delightful revision comes in Miranda’s relationship with Dorothea, which develops into a full-on lesbian romance. Shakespeare has often rewarded queer readings, and moments like Miranda’s realisation that “she thought she had discovered marvels when first she looked upon the faces of new men. But women: women were another wonder entirely” expand cleverly on the original text while joyously queering it. Particularly memorable is Miranda and Dorothea’s first sexual encounter, which stems from a fantasy-inflected homage to the grand tradition of Shakespearean cross-dressing, and then adds a fantastic gag of its own.

But Shakespeare is not the only literary tradition in play, and Duckett’s crossing it with the Gothic yields strong, if mixed, results. The novel’s mid-section, where we learn the true fate of Miranda’s mother, feels a little over-long, although it packs a real punch towards the end. Though the book resurrects most of the play’s noble characters, a visit from Stephano and Trinculo might have added some variety. And while the book’s final twist is fitting (and its last sentence absolutely gorgeous) the means of getting there is not quite adequately seeded earlier on, which adds a sense of contrivance to an otherwise neat parallel.

But then again, what would the Gothic — or indeed Shakespeare — be without contrivance? Miranda in Milan is a delightful expansion of Shakespeare’s characters, and a critical yet affectionate interrogation of The Tempest. As answers to its central question go, it’s a damn good one, and one that feels precisely calibrated to the needs of 2019.

Miranda in Milan is available for preorder from Macmillan, in ebook and paperback editions.

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Review: The Tempest at the Donmar Warehouse

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 29 September 2016.

Shakespeare has many faults, not least his failure of the Bechdel test. Director Phyllida Lloyd has taken it upon herself to correct this, and since 2012 she and her team have staged a trilogy of all-female productions for the Donmar Warehouse, with the final instalment debuting this week. The trilogy has grabbed a few headlines for its setting in an all-female prison, and it’s certainly a bold move. The Tempest is about a powerful wizard in command of a mysterious exotic island, so setting it in a chilly concrete cell seems counter-intuitive. In its best moments this produces an interesting tension, but it often feels like the play is struggling against its own concept. Rough, strange, and a little bit shambolic, there’s a lot to like in this production, but there’s also a sense of a gimmick wearing a bit thin.

The play starts with the cast lining up, and Harriet Walter announcing she is serving a life sentence for “a politically motivated bank robbery”, before taking up her role as Prospero. The story unfolds as a performance, or shared fantasy, of the prisoners, with the realities of prison life intruding at key intervals. It’s a good idea, but it feels a bit arbitrary — guards are constantly harassing Sebastian and Antonio, but they never come near Prospero, despite her constant tricks on her fellow inmates. This ought to be ambiguous and fantastical, but comes across muddy and confused. Lloyd jams in some extraneous musical numbers, mostly sung by Ariel, and while they’re mostly competent they disrupt the flow significantly. Ariel’s final song painfully drags out one of the play’s best moments, repeating the same lines ad nauseam rather than coming up with new ones. The stage dressing is minimal, but nicely evocative, strewn with rubbish befitting Sophie Stanton’s interpretation of Caliban as a kind of mad bag lady.

While Caliban and Ariel are fun, it’s Prospero who anchors the play, and Harriet Walter excels in the part. She’s every bit the weary old scholar of Shakespeare’s text, but she’s much less spiteful than the usual interpretation. Strolling around with hands in her pockets, her contemplative attitude makes her louder moments stand out, such as her unhinged delivery of the ‘insubstantial pageant’ speech. (A rather beautiful moment involving video projections onto a cloud of white balloons, emphasising the otherworldly splendour). Her affection for Leah Harvey as Miranda is genuinely touching, and Harvey manages the shift from youthful joy to adolescent wonder impeccably. Between them they form the play’s emotional core, and it’s nice to see a Shakespeare production focused on a mother-daughter relationship rather than the Bard’s paternalism. Jackie Clune and Karen Dunbar are funny as Stephano and Trinculo, and Jade Anouka makes a fine Ariel, even if her rapping was a bit weak at the preview performance. The rest of the cast don’t make much impression, but to be fair these are hardly Shakespeare’s most memorable characters, and finding depth in Gonzalo is a challenge few actors have met.

The Tempest is a potpourri, then, but not without its charms, and, more importantly, not without relevance. The boldest choice comes at the end — in the original Prospero ‘abjures’ his magic, and returns to Milan, a moment many have read as reflective of Shakespeare’s own decision to retire. Lloyd’s ending goes beyond Shakespeare’s text — Walter delivers her final monologue, and then steps out of character, becoming a prisoner again. We then hear a set of messages from Walter’s friends and family, including the daughter she left behind when she was arrested. The message is clear: don’t give up. The light returns to the harshness of the prison, the voices fade into the whirring of a vacuum cleaner. The final impression is of resilience rather than resignation, and for that alone it’s worth applauding. It’s a wonderful subversion of Shakespeare’s text, and one that could only have been done with this cast and this setting. Because, let’s face it, after 400 years, the male angst version is played out.