Bilimankhwe Arts’ production of Shakespeare’s self-conscious swansong looked, to my eyes, a very curious confection at first sight. This is a play about magic, about the imposition of art (in the Jacobian humanist sense of the word) and artifice on the human condition; it’s late Will being post-modern and self-reflexive 350 years before that started to ruin everything, and it appeared that some manner of spell had been cast from the mocked up terrain of Prospero’s Island.
What was this Malawian torso twisting and arm flaying as proxy for the eponymous storm, performed by two bare chested, body painted men of colour – embodying Ariel? What was this score, performed live off stage – light plucked guitar, double-sided hand drum and Chichewa chanting? And why was Caliban (Stanley Mambo) dressed as a tribal madman? And then, sipping on my free Jamaican ginger beer, it hit me. Could this…could this be a colonial interpretation of the play?
Thanks to scholars like Octave Mannoni and Wikipedia, we know that postcolonial readings of The Tempest have been en vogue since the 1950s, and retrospectively, this is often what was imagined to be on Shakespeare’s mind when he placed his exiled King with his hunger for power and dominion on a foreign island, where he proceeds to engineer a dynastic power grab, enslaving the locals – of all magics and none, to do his bidding and feed his God Complex.
The Greenwich Theatre’s Tempest whips this theme using its dramaturgical trident and folds in some colourful dance and African-inspired music and song, giving this version tangible texture and charm. Such mesmerism and otherworldly novelty is a great fit for a play removed from our own experience by time and geography, while the colonial undertow adds contemporary menace to Prospero’s project – not least because unlike her hulking white Father, Miranda (an ebullient Cassandra Hercules), is black, garmented as indigenous to the island, and used by Prospero as a vessel for his territorial ambitions, enchanting her courtship with a love sick Prince Ferdinand.
This thematic clarity is offered in place of plot, which was been cut down like a sail ship in a storm. The three men of sin subplot is excised (along with Antonio, Alonso and Sebastian), leaving a streamlined focus on romance and comedy (in the low form of Trinculo and Stephano). It’s arguably a less interesting story without the Machiavellian machinations, but this version makes for a bright and exotic evening with dare I say, a hint of magic in the air.