With the array of weird and wonderful performances currently on display at the World Shakespeare Festival, you could be forgiven for thinking that a new, truly unique, and truly unusual adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s plays represents something of an impossibility. Enter Fifth Column Film’s feature-length film, Tempest.
Four years in the making, the film, to quote co-director Rob Curry, “merges drama and documentary to explore English identity and youth culture… in the shadow of protests, riots and the Olympic Games.” And within a few minutes, one is aware that this is no ordinary adaptation. Opening with a monologue describing the isolation and disillusionment of inner-city youth, played over grainy video of last summer’s riots, the viewer appreciates right away that Tempest is a modern, bold and urgent production.
Staged across a variety of sets – one of which utilises a South London council estate where many of the cast grew up as a stand-in for Prospero’s island – and featuring young actors, Tempest defies simple explanation. Combining elements of stage play, amateur film, documentary, mockumentary, found footage, and even animated film, it is a dazzling blend of styles. At its core is a fascinating interplay between interviews with the actors – both in and out of character – and then handheld footage of those same actors both rehearsing and acting out their scenes. Co-directors Rob Curry and Anthony Fletcher employ this self-reflexivity without falling into any of the pretentiousness so often associated with it and other postmodern techniques – and it is via the approach that we get a genuine sense of the young cast’s engagement with Shakespeare’s last, great play.
There is a good chance that Shakespeare purists would hate this film, but one gets the impression that this wouldn’t bother the cast and crew in the slightest. Indeed, part of what gives Tempest its wonderful energy is precisely its air of rebellion against what it dubs “teapot Shakespeare,” and productions in which the characters aren’t so much human as “stereotypically Shakespearean” “cardboard cut-outs.” At a time when the World Shakespeare Festival is playing host to lavish productions and well-funded theatre groups, the film’s on-a-shoestring aesthetic provides an interesting contrast. Towards the end of the film – in tune with its ongoing implicit comment on the gross financial inequalities present in England’s capital city – we hear the actors themselves lament the fact that financial constraints deny them easy access to more glamorous forms of acting.
Ultimately, Tempest is highly original and constantly entertaining, but what gives it its strength is what I can only describe as its honesty. We see the cast wrestling with their lines, and arguing over which character is which other character’s cousin. We see them having difficulties with pronunciation. And to anyone who isn’t a Shakespeare scholar, this is deeply endearing, and deeply familiar. Because the fact is that – even if it’s not very fashionable to admit it – this is how many (perhaps most) people actually experience Shakespeare; with trepidation, with frustration, and eventually – provided you are not George Bernard Shaw or Leo Tolstoy – a sort of joyful amazement.
Many people decry the younger generation’s lack of engagement with classic literature. And yet in Tempest we see the work of a 16th century dramatist treated like putty in the hands of a group of (far from classically trained) British twenty-somethings. Actor Zephryn Taitte – who is brilliant as Prospero – reveals that he had to more or less “educate himself,” and that he was first drawn to Shakespeare when he learnt that the protagonist of Othello was black. This, right here, is the younger generation engaging with Shakespeare. And while Tempest‘s more political moments – criticism of the dogmatic nature of modern British schooling; an equating of the dehumanised Caliban with the politically neglected black youth of London – might not be agreeable to everyone, they will certainly provoke debate.
I said earlier in this piece that Fifth Column Film’s Tempest defies simple explanation. That’s true. And so I shall cease my breathless praise. My best advice would be to go and see it. As soon as possible.
(N.B. Tempest is screening on 6th July at the East End Film Festival, and on 12th July at the Galway Film Fleadh. An interview with film-makers Rob Curry and Anthony Fletcher on the Directors’ Notes podcast is available via the iTunes store, or this link. You can receive updates on the film via both Facebook and Twitter.)