Sandra Alland assesses the scratch performance of Birds of Paradise’s new work, Miranda and Caliban: The Making of a Monster which showed at Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow and Kwai Tsing Theatre in Hong Kong on 5-6 November 2016. Content Note: discussion of sexual violence.
Not all experiments immediately yield the intended results, as is the case with Birds of Paradise’s Miranda and Caliban: The Making of a Monster, inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Knowing the excellent political engagement Birds of Paradise aspires to, I hope the company continues to mould the piece into the high-quality theatre they’re known for.
There’s a lot to commend in the work so far. Garry Robson and Robert Softley-Gale directed two accessible productions in vastly different time zones and four languages: the cast in Hong Kong worked in Cantonese and Hong Kong Sign Language; and the Scotland cast worked in English with British Sign Language interpretation.
The show occurred in both places simultaneously, linked via live video of performances from each country; it was also live-streamed. Short films were shown locally to both audiences – including gripping music videos of Hector Bizerk. Unfortunately, the video link quality was poor and the captions were small, but hopefully this can be remedied.
In re-examining The Tempest, Birds of Paradise decided to turn Shakespeare’s island world into a talk show cum trial-by-social-media – with Judge Ariel Storm (Joe Wong) interviewing Caliban (Jason Wong) in Hong Kong, and Ariel Skirl (Softley-Gale) interviewing Prospero (Paul Cunningham) in Scotland.
Performances between disabled and Deaf actors in both locations were mostly well combined and executed. However, the pre-show clapping lesson by Antonia (Caroline Parker) lacked a sinister edge that would have helped set a more effective tone, and Wong’s Caliban was perpetually at a high intensity that almost placed him in a different play – but perhaps the right play (more on this soon).
The company involved the audience(s) in an ingenious way: people could vote in real time via text, website or Twitter on various questions posed by the talk show hosts. But this brings me to the core problem with the production. The first question was silly: Who would we rather have to dinner, Ariel Storm or Ariel Skirl? The show was set up to be fun and funny, in promotional materials and onstage, a decision at odds with its content.
Without warning for those who weren’t familiar with Shakespeare’s play (and even for those who were, I’d argue it was a shock), the next thing we were casually asked to decide was whether Caliban was ‘a monster or a man’ – based on allegations he had raped Prospero’s daughter, Miranda. For the rest of the one-hour play we were presented with ‘evidence’ from various characters (including Amy Cheskin as the missing Miranda, who only appeared on screen), and asked to decide if Caliban was a rapist.
Besides this being problematic in general, the evidence mostly reinforced myths of rape culture. We were shown video portraying Miranda and Caliban in love, and video of Miranda talking to her father of her love for Caliban. Because sexual violence can’t happen in a loving relationship, right? Any nuance intended (and I trust it was intended) was lost on the audience, evident in the vote of 85% innocent to 15% guilty that remained onscreen for most of the hour.
Only when presented with unsettling video of Miranda weeping, photos of ripped clothing, and audio of Miranda saying, ‘Not now, Caliban. No!’ did the audience shift to a still-disturbing 73% innocent (though people might have abstained).
The problem was not even the innocent vote per se, but instead that it was suggested (and not problematised) that we could decide innocence based on so little, and that it was fun. At the end of the show, Ariel Storm announced with a smile that Miranda had been found, and would appear on the next show for the No Means No campaign; this earned a large laugh.
Perhaps Birds of Paradise chose the wrong Shakespeare to work with in this frame, and found themselves out of their depth – but maybe there’s a way to salvage this idea while still exploring The Tempest. What got lost in Robson and Jennifer Dick’s script were important ideas around why Shakespeare’s Caliban is positioned as a monster.
It was obviously their intention to examine ableism, racism and imperialism in the construction of Evil (are Prospero’s accusations because of his racism against Caliban, a tactic used by many racists throughout history?) – but having four men discuss a woman’s rape in a flippant manner did not, and could not, achieve this.
Birds of Paradise needs to dig deeper, and re-imagine Miranda and Caliban with the seriousness its themes suggest. We live in a climate where most perpetrators don’t go to trial, where victims are dragged through horrific experiences at court and rapists prevail; where the idea of the false accusation is held up as truth far more often than the reality of rape culture.
If an audience is asked to vote on such an extreme matter, it should be warned, and fed information in an appropriate tone. And if the audience votes in troubling ways, Birds of Paradise needs to rigorously interrogate that vote, to dissect it, to uncover and question the disturbing intersections of misogyny, racism, classism and ableism that create dysfunction in our world. I hope they get there, because that’s a piece of theatre worth making.