October 28, 2017, by Peter Kirwan

The Tempest (Bilimankhwe International Theatre) @ Lakeside Arts Centre

Bilimankhwe’s latest project, The Tempest, is a potentially fascinating concept. Bringing together European and African artists, director Kate Stafford cast actors from Malawi and Zimbabwe as Ariel and Caliban, and a multi-racial British cast as the colonising Europeans, building into the production from the start a series of power relationships with the potential to comment on Westernisation, cultural difference and abjection. Disappointingly, however, this was less a postcolonial production than a colonial one, reproducing colonial relationships with dangerously little critique, and offering a surprisingly conservative (politically and dramatically) reading of The Tempest.

It started fabulously. To flashing lights and a mesmerising percussive live score performed by Ben Mankhamba, Frederick Rich and Stanley Malizani Mambo, two men with opposite halves of their faces whitened by make-up performed an acrobatic dance, sometimes moving in perfect unison and sometimes spinning each other round. Robert Magasa and Joshua Bhima played Ariel as a duo, two native spirits working in harmony with one another, sharing sentences and taking joy in one another’s presence. Their dynamic was by far the strongest thing about the production, their dancing joyful and exciting.

It began to fall apart once the play itself started. Structurally, this version of The Tempest was a mess. Presumably for economy, all of the nobles were cut, leaving only the Ferdinand-Miranda and the Caliban-Stephano-Trinculo plots intact. This had a number of effects, most crucially removing all of the dramatic stakes. Christopher Brand’s Prospero had no adversary and no purpose; he simply set up Miranda and Ferdinand on one hand, and frowned at the clowns on the other. There was no tension with a primarily sullen Caliban (Mambo again), no real conflict with the Ariels, no threat posed by the clowns (though Benedict Martin made a good stab of trying to make Stephano a little more sinister in his plans to rule the island). While there was a closing reference in which Prospero told Ferdinand his father was alive, it rendered the entire Milan plot and all the references to it pointless. Without Alonso and co, this production has made clear to me, there is no play.

This decision completely isolated Brand. A towering presence, his Prospero was unquestionably the only authority on the island, standing upstage and waving his arms as he got Ariel to do his will. Brand did some good work with the lines, but deprived of anyone to play against, was forced to argue with himself. His screams of anguish at having ‘forgotten’ about Caliban’s plot were completely at odds with the fact that we had in the previous scene seen him distract and dismay the clowns, and the fact that there was no threat there in the first place. In terms of his size and what the plot remained, Brand had simply nowhere to go in finding a conflict.

The lack of conflict was exacerbated by the production’s most bizarre and troubling choice – the complete infantilisation of all of the characters played by actors of colour. The diminutive Cassandra Hercules played Miranda as if she was a girl of eight, giggling and speaking in a sing-song voice. She ran constantly to her father, clasping him hard around his waist, and deferred entirely to his authority; confronted with Ferdinand, she toyed with the hem of her dress, and veered wildly between emotional outbursts. In playing such a juvenile Miranda, the relationship with Reice Weathers’s Ferdinand became very uncomfortable, an odd mix of platonic and sexual, and with Prospero standing upstage nodding happily at the two lovers blowing kisses at one another, the overall effect was of a child bride being sold off without really understanding what she was getting into. That both of the young lovers were charming didn’t really mitigate this, and shorn of the political context for the marriage, there was no external justification of problematisation of the contract.

The Ariels, too, were fantastic when left to their dancing, but when in scenes with Prospero they, too, were infantilised. Particularly during their ‘moody’ sequence, the two huffed and folded their arms and sulked, leaving Prospero to sneer patronisingly at them. In many ways, they were played as if the two Dromios from Comedy of Errors, the playful and teasing servants who are also entirely abject. Again, the relationship established here was full of potential, but what was actually presented was a white man wielding absolute power over two black men, showing no tolerance for any independent thought on their part, and finally releasing them in an uncomplicatedly positive gesture. There was absolutely no critique of the structure that had accorded him this power in the first place, just their happy and willing subservience.

Another nice but sadly under-used idea was the production’s bilingualism – early on, the Ariels spoke in what I assume from the programme was Chichewa, and Prospero answered them in the same; and Caliban, too, frequently spoke in his native tongue. I wish the production had had the confidence to pursue this in more depth, but sadly the Malawian actors ended up speaking primarily in English. I wish the production had explored the logical implications of the language issue (presumably Prospero and Miranda, in this world, learned the native tongue from Ariel?), but as it was, English was simply reified as the shared tongue, and there was no exploration of what it might mean for Caliban to take ownership of his own self-articulation.

The Stephano and Trinculo plot was rendered purely comic. I could identify no consistent period setting, but Stephano turned up in a vaguely Venetian Renaissance get-up, while Trinculo (Victoria Jeffrey) was a society lady of indeterminate period with fascinating hat and handbag. The gabardine skit was extremely awkward; the aim was presumably to get Trinculo and Caliban into a position where it looked like they were having sex, but the actors didn’t seem clear on how to get there, resulting in Trinculo simply parting Caliban’s legs and then crouching between them. Again, there was the potential here for something fascinating – a colonised subject, for example, so terrified by the actions of this white woman that he is paralysed into being unable to resist something akin to a sexual assault – but any serious implications were unexplored. Trinculo and Stephano’s relationship was friendly and soused, and there was a lovely bit of business as Stephano only lightly tapped Trinculo in punishment, while Trinculo responded violently in reply. But the scenes went nowhere, and ended up with a clothes line and a perfunctory chastising in which the Ariels simply barked a couple of times.

In short, the production was weakest whenever it tried to ‘do Shakespeare’. It didn’t seem clear on the dramaturgical value of any of the scenes it had chosen (let alone the ones it had cut), meaning that this felt like a compilation rather than a coherent production. Brand did some valiant work with his big speeches (and the Ariels laid out a phosphorescent magic circle of stones (or rice?) which looked marvellous glowing under black light), but it was completely unclear what he was abjuring or why, and if any of the action we were seeing connected to anything he was talking about. Instead, I found myself waiting for the next big musical sequence. Mambo did some wonderful work in his rebel songs, with the European clowns dancing behind him as he hammered out his own rhythms; the masque was an amazing set-piece for the two Ariels, ending with them spinning the two lovers around in a blanket in an erotic ritual (that would have been more effective if applied to more obviously consenting adults), and the musicians throughout were extraordinary to listen to. But overall, this was a production that staged a colonial aesthetic, and did excellent work in bringing together performers from different continents, but never went far enough in exploring the more difficult issues the situation presented.

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