By William Shakespeare
Directed by Matt Edgerton
Starring Humphrey Bower, Teresa Jakovich, Pavan Kumar Hari, Caroline McKenzie, Catherine Moore, Drayton Morley, Will O’Mahony, Charlotte Otton, Phoebe Sullivan, Mararo Wangai, Ian Wilkes
Black Swan Theatre production at the Octagon Theatre until December 11
The Tempest was Shakespeare’s last play, opening in 1611 before King James I. The lead character, Prospero’s two final soliloquies are regarded as Shakespeare’s retirement speeches.
The play commences with a shipwreck in a storm and concludes with the restoration of feudal relations as Prospero regains his stolen kingdom, achieves a compassionate humanity and a respectable dynastic marriage is arranged. That would have pleased King James, but there is a great deal between those events that would have charmed the lower orders.
The period in which this play was written, the lead up to the English Civil War, was the era of the “primitive accumulation” of capital that Karl Marx described. It was a tumultuous time in which peasants were driven off the land, out of feudal social relations and into the cities where wage labour awaited.
The play reflects the contradictory forces acting upon Shakespeare, such as the royal patronage that fed him, the opinions of the downtrodden who were a significant part of his audience and the general, disconcerting atmosphere of social change.
Between the beginning of the 16th century and the middle of the next century, the population of London increased 800%. This was the social tempest that swirled around Shakespeare and was the economic foundation for the construction of theatres like the Globe.
The Tempest assimilates all this disruptive cauldron and articulates it through its ethereal style and haunting poetry.
The power of the capitalists appeared magical and unassailable to the traumatised plebeians. As Marx put it: “The silent compulsion of economic relations sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker.”
This compulsion is evident in Prospero’s enchanted domination of Ariel and Caliban, who do his bidding and perform all his labour.
Another development was the “Triangular” slave trade from Africa to the Caribbean, with profits flowing to Britain, and the associated creation of racism. This early development of racism can be seen in Prospero’s cruelty towards Caliban.
There is a sub-plot in The Tempest, in which two aristocrats conspire to murder two sleeping lords to inherit their positions. Shakespearean audiences would have relished the sight of cynical upper class intrigues and murderous power plays being depicted on stage.
This Black Swan Theatre production satisfyingly mines the text for comedy. But the overwhelming feature is the creativity that engages you from the moment you first meet the actors, who invite audience participation in pre-performance, non-threatening interactions and singing.
The staging is simple, a raised circle of sand on which the cast’s choreographed physicality generates a mystical atmosphere.
A couple of Shakespeare’s male characters have been changed to female, which achieves gender balance, and Noongar, Indian and African cast members insert new dimensions, all of which occurs seamlessly.
Pavan Kumar Hari uses Indian classical ballet movements in his mesmerising and masterful depiction of the fairy, Ariel. He also composed the music and plays it on stage using various traditional instruments. His contribution is extraordinary and apparently effortless. Ian Wilkes inserts sand dance, clapsticks and didgeridoo.
This production marks the 30th anniversary of Black Swan. The Tempest was the first play BSTC produced and it was presented at the Octagon. This modern interpretation shows that the Company remains courageous in searching out new frontiers in theatre.