Kate Stafford’s adaptation of The Tempest is an important contribution to multicultural Shakespeare which in her company’s version of the play brings an encounter of the East African and British cultures. But while Shakespeare’s Tempest is a more complex text in terms of its politics she purposefully focuses on the island’s native inhabitants by cutting out almost completely the plot involving ship-wrecked courtiers. By removing the scheming dukes Caliban’s rebellion against Prospero to quash his power becomes central to this production thus considerably changing the dynamics of Shakespeare’s story.
It would be easy to dismiss Bilimankhwe staging as a low budget ‘fringe production’: the set design is minimal and consists of three bushes set on rocky outcrops while the production’s background is just a grey sheet with white stencilled plants. At less than two hours it is also a fleeting affair. In fact this short adaptation is a rich celebration of Malawian culture and language, most prominently through music and songs, which is put in dialogue with the European performing and musical traditions.
Bilimankhwe’s isle is full of incessant movement like no other staging that I have seen before thanks to major onstage presence of Malawian actors in the roles of two Ariels. Robert Magasa and Joshua Bhima simply own the stage when they dance. In fact the production starts with the storm created by their Ariels, which we can imagine is raised by the sheer power of ritualised dancing. Indeed apart from music, choreography remains one of the best features of this production. Miranda and Ferdinand’s wedding ceremony is particularly joyous with the couple engaged in intoxicating, subtly erotic, dance routine.
Inevitably this Tempest is first and foremost about colonialism. A white Prospero rules the island with an iron hand but it is apparent that he is more connected to the land he has control over than Shakespeare’s Prospero. While Shakespeare’s works were always an important cultural export to the colonies to strengthen the British policy of cultural supremacy through the use of English language Bilimankhwe adaptation attempts to change this hegemonic discourse by putting Chichewa language at the heart of this production. What is more, parts of the play have been translated into high (or classic) Chichewa thus even stronger elevating the importance of the Malawian culture. This linguistic strategy also works as an effective dramaturgical device. We see Prospero is able to rule effectively only because he is able to understand and speak Chichewa. More than that: it is apparent that he enjoys local custom too. He cannot stop smiling when he hears Malawian songs and cannot help but join in dancing with the natives when he has a chance.
There is some interesting, sometimes unusual, characterisation across the production. Prospero (Christopher Brand) is surprisingly young and sprightly and as a result does not come across as a scholar or duke at all, but it is refreshing to see a less ill-tempered and more genial Prospero. Caliban is not just a savage, but a broken older man who loves his island. Stanley Malizani Mambo carries a native Malawian musical instrument with him all the time and plays it whenever he sings. He is the one who speaks Chichewa most throughout the performance, most significantly when praising the island’s beauty.
The ensemble’s acting is an interesting mixture of African and European aesthetics – Malawian actors are particularly effective as they bring physicality and vibrancy to the production making it really exciting to watch. The British multicultural cast includes feisty Miranda played by petite Cassandra Hercules and Reice Weathers as a truly charming Ferdinand. The two young actors have superb chemistry on stage and we are in no doubt as spectators that Miranda and Ferdinand are simply a perfect match.
Overall the show is a delight to watch, and after a short run in London, it is now going to tour extensively in the UK and I urge you not miss the opportunity to be part of this heart-warming, high-spirited and exuberantly festive venture.