Imogen Usherwood explores Sightline Productions ad Suffragette Theatre Company’s postcolonial interpretation of The Tempest, the final show of the DST calendar.
The final show in the 2018/19 DST calendar, this year’s prestigious Gala Theatre slot went to The Tempest, a collaboration between Sightline Productions and Suffragette Theatre Company. A postcolonial interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s final plays, The Tempest was originally shown at the College of St Hild and St Bede in Michaelmas Term; director Layla Chowdury has breathed new life into her production on a bigger stage, creating a real spectacle of a show.
The choice of set establishes a vision of a bold, colourful island teeming with life – huge silk hangings are suspended from the ceiling, and a raised platform is created at the back of the stage adorned with patchworked fabrics. This aesthetic extends into the costume and make up design, as a cast of spirits roam the stage, adorned in colourful silk scarves, with wild hair and technicolour make up. This contrasts with the simple white cotton of the mortals, the characters who arrive on the island seeking to claim it as their own. Indeed, one of the most striking motifs of the production was when Stephano (Ed Rees) and Trinculo (Alex Ottie) snatch the sari fabric from the spirits and parade around in it jokingly; Rees and Ottie made for a brilliant comedic duo throughout the show, but this sobering moment emphasised the crucial themes in this production.
The spirits themselves are impressive. The role of Ariel is split between three actors, Aarnav Tewari-Sharma, Helena Baker and Lucy Little, lending a more ethereal sense to the character as a being with echoing voices and multiple bodies. The other spirits, a cast of six, did not leave the stage until the very end, but rather lingered, constantly, a reminder that the ‘western’ characters have found themselves on an island already full of inhabitants with their own way of life and of communicating. The spirits were constantly onstage, pulsing and swaying, clapping and stamping, creating a vision and a soundscape of the island. As such, no scene was without colonial undertones; we are constantly aware that the other characters can never truly call this island their home when so many invisible beings live there.
The rest of the cast are strong and confident throughout; Harry Twining commands the stage as patriarch Prospero, especially in the ‘such stuff as dreams are made’ monologue and his final soliloquy. Prospero’s ‘magic’ was enchanting to watch as characters froze or collapsed into sleep at a moment’s notice. Aaron Rozanski and Molly Goetzee are charming and believable as Ferdinand and Miranda, and Grace Brimacombe-Rand and Jack de Deney bounce off each other easily as Sebastian and Antonio. Sophie Cullis’s Caliban is a powerful character who really calls on the central themes of Chowdury’s creative vision, especially in her interactions with Rees and Ottie.
The band, led by Musical Directors Acacia To and Sam Abel, were not consigned to the orchestra pit as is usual in most DST Gala shows, but occupied the back of the stage where they were clearly visible; this made the production feel more authentic, a show which does not need smoke and mirrors to create magic on stage. The musical interludes set the tone for each scene very neatly, but it was slightly frustrating that in what was arguably the most important musical moment – the spirits’ collective dance – a pre-recorded song was used with some live percussion over the top. While this moment was itself immensely powerful, offering a captivating alternative to traditional western theatre, it seemed a shame that the live band were not used.
The Tempest was a fitting end to the DST calendar – a reminder of all that is good about student theatre in its capacity to push boundaries and break limits, as well as a Shakespeare play dwells heavily on endings. Suffragette and Sightline offer an immersive, powerful production which brings out unheard voices and tongues within a traditional text, in a burst of colour and vivacity but with essential socio-political undertones.
Photography: Ting Pan