creating the tempest

(continued)

We were in Malawi to research for The Tempest, joining our colleague Amy Bonsall who was working on what was the core of her PhD, a Chichewa language version of Romeo and Juliet. While I waited outside the locked guest house, taking the opportunity to have a FaceTime chat with my husband (the mobile internet is good there), Hazel and Amy went off to a township in the dark. Their mission: to find and retrieve the key from the pocket of one of the lecturers who was enjoying a post-work drink (or five) in a local bar, known as a bottle store.

Likoma is an amazing place. A place of sand and rocks and searing heat

Easter weekend saw us sleeping on the deck of the MV Ilala, a ferry which has been working the shores of Lake Malawi since 1951. The ferry took us through the night across Lake Malawi to Likoma Island which was to be our inspiration for the design of The Tempest.

Likoma is an amazing place. A place of sand and rocks and searing heat, it is near to the Mozambique shore of the lake; I first went there in 2004, when I was living and working in Malawi. It has a colonial history, and although it is a small island, there is a huge brick cathedral which was built in the European style by 19th Century missionaries and is one of the largest churches in Africa. Christianity and old cultural practices have blended in Likoma, and when Hazel and I were taken to visit a local witch doctor we discovered a heady mix of bible verses and old beliefs, which formed the basis for our production. 

Here were Prospero, Caliban and Ariel - European mixing with Malawian; magical, other worldly.

Near to the cathedral there is a local sang'omo - a witch  doctor who mixes traditional customs and Christianity. We were taken to meet him and heard his story of his journey which ended on this island, while the women sat nearby and softly sang and chanted. He burned herbs and chanted Christian prayers, attended by his acolytes  : here were Prospero, Caliban and Ariel - European mixing with Malawian; magical, other-worldly.

It was on this trip that we found our Caliban; when I met Stanley Malizani Mambo at his theatre building in Lilongwe I was sure that he would bring a great intelligence and physicality to the role.

 

I wanted to cast Malawian performers for Caliban and Ariel; they are the original island inhabitants who have been colonised by Prospero and Miranda.

Shortly after meeting Stanley, we saw the versatile actor/dancers Joshua Bhima and Robert Magasa performing in a disused hall in Mzuzu. They were touring in a new theatre  production directed and created by international theatre director Uwe Schüran; as I watched the show, there was a moment when they danced together. The show was lit by spotlights at floor level as there was nowhere to hang lights, and the result was huge shadows cast around the cavernous hall.  At that moment I knew that I had found my Ariel: both would play the same role as two halves of one malicious, michievous Malawian sprite.

Finding a multi-racial cast of British actors to play Prospero, Miranda, Ferdinand, Stephano and Trinculo was the next task. The only problem was the sheer number of fabulous actors to choose from. It was important that the incomers to the island should be British, but not all white, as this production was to be about colonialism, not race, so I created a cast which included African, Caribbean and British heritage. 

This production of The Tempest springs from a single line spoken by Caliban:  

 

This island’s mine from Sycorax my mother,

which thou take’st from me.

The play takes place in a single day, in which both Prospero and Caliban seek vengance but ultimately find redemption and forgiveness when the healing power of love comes to the island.

 

I have loved working with this talented team; Ben Mankhamba and Fred Rich have created a musical identity for the island which is a true hybrid of Malawi and Britain, and I have learned much from working with Zimbabwean/Malawian Shyne Phiri: he brought contemporary dance to Malawi and has created magic in this production. 

Audiences everywhere will enjoy this production as much as we have enjoyed creating it. Welcome to the magical world of Prospero’s (or rather Caliban’s) Island. 

 

Kate Stafford is Bilimankwhe’s  founder and Artistic Director