The Tempest

William Shakespeare
Bilimankhwe Arts
Greenwich Theatre

Joshua Bhima and Robert Magasa as Ariel Credit: Matt Martin
Reice Weathers as Ferdinand and Cassandra Hercules as Miranda with Joshua Bhima and Robert Magasa as Ariel Credit: Matt Martin

This is an international version of Shakespeare’s late play that brings performers from Malawi in south-east Africa to work with British actors and creatives, their traditional dance and music adding its own colour to Prospero’s island.

Director Kate Stafford has cut the play savagely. She has removed the King of Naples and the usurper Duke of Milan and their entourages, replaced Shakespeare’s songs with Malawi versions and changed some passages into a Malawi language (with surtitle translations).

This produces a compact two-hour performance (including interval) that concentrates on the pairing of Ferdinand and Miranda, the clown scenes and Caliban and it retains Prospero’s finest speeches.

There is no opening scene aboard ship to end in shipwreck; instead, two animated figures cavort in a frenzy of dance in a gloom that is lit by flashes of lightning. It vigorously establishes an ethnic aura but if you don’t already know the story it gives no clue to what is going on—and it goes on too long, especially as it is followed by the long scene of exposition with Prospero explaining to his daughter Miranda how his brother deposed him from his Milan Dukedom and how they came to this island.

That opening is, of course, the titular tempest, the dancers the spirits that stir up the storm or, in this case, the spirit. They are a dual-bodied Ariel, Prospero’s servant since the duke-magician freed him from imprisonment inside a tree. It is a concept that works well and Robert Magasa and Joshua Bhima are an excellent pairing, playful and engaging, staying cheerful even though pining for the freedom they’ve been promised by Prospero.

You can see why Prospero lost his dukedom: he’s reliant on his magic rather than natural authority; he even puts spells on his daughter. At first, Christopher Brand gives us a man unsure of himself. It may be the actor (there has only been one previous performance and roaming the stage and walking backwards are sure signs of insecurity and hurried delivery leaves no time for thinking), but Prospero is setting a plan in motion that could go wrong, he would be nervous.

Through the play he appears often, a figure in the background, the magician who can control the action of others, his confidence growing as things go right. He doesn’t deliver those great speeches to relish their poetry but infuses them with anger as though he’s fed up with magic manipulation, wants it to be over.

Cassandra Hercules, as Miranda, has a struggle to be heard over the storm but soon establishes a perky, almost petulant Miranda; she knows her dad dotes on her, he that she too easily grabs new experiences, such as Ferdinand. He’s the royal heir of an old enemy of Prospero but the cuts make her father’s plotting now appear to be mainly to make him marry Miranda. As for Ferdinand, no time is wasted on mourning his supposed drowned father and companies, he can’t believe his luck when he comes on Miranda and Trice Weathers’s eyes leave you in no doubt about it. Or is it just due to Prospero’s magic?

Caliban, son of the witch who once ruled this island and now Prospero’s slave, is no monster though but rather endearing. His wish to kill Prospero is like a small child’s idea for removing his oppressive master. Stanley Maliani Mambo makes him delightful; you can’t hold it against him and those fine lines about his island fit him well—and he sings too, in an indigenous Malawi language.

Caliban is no clown but Trincolo and Stephano have to be. Benedict Martin give Stephano a camply comic persona and, changing the role’s gender, Victoria Jeffrey is a slightly prim Trinculo but they have a tough time trying to get laughs with Jacobean jokes and are given little opportunity for physical clowning. There is a nice touch when Trinculo starts repairing her make-up but it seems quite out of character when she pushes herself between Caliban’s legs to get under cover from rainfall.

There are no apparitions, no magic feast, and no goddesses to bless the young couple: instead Ariel dances for their entertainment but there is one lovely use of magic. When Ferdinand is told to carry logs, they are changed to rocks and he has to pointlessly move them from one place to another. For him, they are horribly heavy but the Ariels easily toss them back to their first place, so Ferdinand can never complete the task.

With the usurping Duke and the King of Naples left aboard ship, the revenge plot that drives the whole action is weakened, for what has Prospero got against butler Stephano and Trinculo who do come ashore?

This isn’t the whole play and the cuts put more emphasis on those two, where material could have gone instead since it's not gaining much laughter. The young couple are delightful, Ariel and Caliban engaging and the music very pleasing so there is plenty to enjoy.

Bilimankhwe’s The Tempest will tour to: 2 October EM Forster Theatre, Tonbridge; 3 October Norden Farm Centre for the Arts, Maidenhead; 4 October Conservatoire EAST, Bury St Edmunds; 5 October The Spring Arts and Heritage Centret, Havant; 7 October Quarry Theatre at St Lukes, Bedford 10-11 October Lighthouse, Poole; 12 October Theatre Royal, Winchestger; 14 October MAC, Birmingham; 16 October Farnham Maltings; 18 October Library Theatre, Luton; 19 October Hertford Theatre; 22-23 October Styx Space, Tottenham; 25-26 October Cast, Doncaster; 27 October Djanogly Theatre, Nottingham.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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