Kate Stafford’s cross-cultural version of The Tempest brings Malawian music and actors to the British stage in this lively production. However, her chops and changes make it seem that both a lot, and also nothing, is happening at the same time.
Bilmankhwe’s The Tempest, currently at the Greenwich Theatre, sprung from a single line of the Shakespeare original according to director Kate Stafford’s programme notes: Caliban’s “This island’s mine from Sycorax my mother, which thou tak’st from me”.
Alongside this statement, she identifies that her production is a commentary on British colonialism; with the three island native inhabitants played by Malawian actors, and a cross-racial British cast forming the shipwrecked visitors to the island. This commentary works better in some places than others; the two engaging performances from Robert Masaga and Joshua Bhima playing a split-role version of the native spirit Ariel was a nice take on the original play and added depth and vibrancy to the production. However, the relationship between the ‘colonist’ Prospero (Christopher Brand) and ‘colonised’ Caliban (Stanley Malizani Mambo) doesn’t sit amazingly well with the audience, with Prospero’s hatred for Caliban never fully explained or resolved and a judgement of Prospero that is never fully identified and realised as he played as a hero of sorts. The heroism doesn’t quite seem justified in the colonial context.
Whilst the political commentary was a little hit-and-miss, the production features notable performances; especially that of Victoria Jeffrey and Benedict Martin’s Trinculo and Stephano, who brought well-timed humour to the stage. However, an absence of characters is definitely felt in this cut-down version of the original. The key characters of Alonso, Antonio, and Gonzalo are cut from this production – and whilst this keeps the play to a manageable running time, it also takes meat off the bones and moves the romantic storyline between Ferdinand and Miranda along so quickly that it almost seems comical. The continual reference to these characters meant that the plot is still held together, however, it also gives the piece the feeling that both a lot and not very much happened at the same time.
Overall, it’s the cross-cultural context of Stafford’s version which gives it charm. With a lively soundtrack, interesting stage design, and refreshing physicality, it was entertaining to watch and I’d be interested to see other Bilmankhwe productions. I just don’t think it entirely worked against the trimmed-down Shakespearean backdrop.