A rebellious Tempest
The Tempest, the last, perhaps the most complex and lyrical of Shakespeare’s plays, probes deep into “the dark backward and abysm of time” and flashes forward into a brave new world. Corinna Lotz reviews a gender-reversed version in a north London pub.
In director Simon Beyer’s re-cast version of The Tempest, all the roles are gender-reversed. The eleven women and single man on stage give Shakespeare’s mythical tale of enchanted spirits under the sway of a marooned Duke – or rather Duchess-turned-sorceress – a fresh slant. The male-dominated hierarchies no longer rule. Instead it is a battle of wits amongst women, spirits and enslaved creatures, half-human half animal.
The transformed function room in Kilburn’s Cock Tavern pub works well as the curved and ribbed inside of a ship’s hull. From the chaotic cries of crew and passengers aboard a storm-tossed ship, the scene shifts abruptly to the magical figure of Prospera (Karen Paullada) and her teenage son Mirundo (Adam Glass) who live on an exotic island. They came to be there after Prospera’s Duchy was usurped by her wicked sister, Antonia (Jemma Hilton James) and she was set adrift on a ship.
We are then thrust into a web of power struggles on the enchanted island. There is a maze of stories - even a “masque” of golden goddesses within the play. Spells are cast and revoked as characters fall under the influence of love, wine, greed and deluded searches for power. The Tempest moves abruptly from the exalted to the profane, from learned sages and wise rulers to the plotting evil-doers, murder, profanity, lust, drunkenness and downright stupidity.
Good Night Out Presents (GNOP)’s production performs these switches with dexterity. A young survivor of the storm, Ferdininia (Jordanna Tin), mourns the loss of her mother to the sound of Arielle’s haunting: “Those are pearls that were her eyes: Nothing of her that doth fade, But doth suffer a sea-change, into something rich and strange. Sea-nymphs hourly ring her knell.”
Ferdininia’s dreaminess contrasts with the explosive anger of the Prospera’s deformed slave, Caliban (Clare Cameron). The morose and vicious Caliban is a foil to the quicksilver spirit Arielle. Tipsy jester Trincula (Hannah Wood) writhes and fumbles inside a huge brown sack to find out what Caliban really is. With the inebriated housekeeper Stephanie (Jane Bowhay) she ruins Caliban’s plot against her mistress by falling prey to the seductions of a dazzling array of garments, like a shopper at Primark.
The character of Caliban (thought to be an anagram for cannibal) is derived from a multiplicity of legends and sources. One strand in his tormented relation with Prospero and Ariel (as they are in the original) was grounded in political debates and theories in Shakespeare’s day about the nature of the indigenous “savages” or “salvages” who faced the colonisers from Europe.
Nearer to our time, in the 1960s, post-colonial writers like Aimé Césaire re-interpreted the story as symbolic of the effect of the colonial invaders on the colonised. But even without a specific post-colonial interpretation, the themes of manipulation and control, of liberation from enslavement, spring to life in this production and they do so at many levels.
Beyer’s 21st century take on The Tempest positively revels in constant unrest. The rowdy often farcical scenes in the underworld, rude words in Welsh and Geordie accents underpin the intrigues and spell-weaving of their superiors. The isle is indeed “full of strange noises”, as Caliban tells Stephanie.
Paullada pulls off the challenging role of a female Prospero with considerable authority and versatility. Her gravitas is tempered by craftiness, moments of weakness and fits of anger when her slaves rebel. Natasha James’ serpentine Arielle is marvellous as she treads a risky – but convincing and touching – borderline between her striving for freedom and the need to please her mistress. Even the most hardened cynic would find it hard to resist her spell.
That said, the poetry of songs like Where the bee sucks, there suck I, familiar lines like We are such stuff / as dreams are made on” and O brave new world, that has such people in it are buried a little too deep in this production. But Prospera’s closing appeal to the audience speaks directly to the heart. In the end, Beyer and his cast have infused a great classic with a contemporary and rebellious feeling.