In a bold move, Red Deer College students are absorbing some of the spiritual beliefs and wood carvings of West Coast Haida culture into their upcoming production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Director Thomas Usher admits that relocating the setting of the Shakespearean play to Haida Gwaii (formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands), off the North Coast of British Columbia, could be seen as courting controversy.
With no First Nations people in the cast or crew, “it was scary for us,” admitted the RDC Theatre Studies instructor.
Usher didn’t want to be accused of misappropriating aboriginal culture when his re-imagined The Tempest opens on Thursday, Feb. 4, at the Red Deer College Arts Centre.
He therefore carefully consulted with First Nations groups before moving Shakespeare’s story to the New World, where a cultural clash happens between the “despotic” old-world character of Prospero and native islanders.
Usher doesn’t feel the re-imagined setting is a big leap. Magic is one of the parallels he sees between Haida beliefs and The Tempest, which includes an uncanny storm and shipwreck that Prospero engineers through the spirit character, Ariel.
In RDC’s version, Ariel will be portrayed as an animistic presence that springs from aboriginal spirituality, said Usher.
The new setting will also allow for a reinterpretation of the villainous island native, Caliban. He is described by Shakespeare as the son of a witch and is often portrayed as a “monstrous” being — which is how Usher imagines some culturally ignorant and intolerant early Europeans thought of the first North Americans.
“When you think of our own egocentric way of looking at other cultures, you can imagine them being called grotesque or hideous,” said Usher, “It’s all in the eye of the beholder.”
Thankfully perceptions have changed over the last century or two, and getting Haida culture right is very important to the director.
“We can take some liberties, because it’s art,” added Usher — but he really doesn’t want to get it wrong, especially at a time when the Truth and Reconciliation Committee has just wrapped up the first stage of hearings about the abuse of aboriginal children in residential schools.
To depict the First Nations culture accurately and respectfully, he turned to the staff of the Red Deer Native Friendship Centre for “cultural sensitivity training.” Usher also contacted a native elder from the Haida Gwaii islands — mask and totem pole carver Reg Davidson — who was flown in to teach the cast and production crew members about Haida ways.
The set and costumes, by Carrie Hamilton, will be inspired by First Nations motifs, as well as the rich palette of colours used by B.C. artist Emily Carr in her paintings of coastal aboriginal villages.
Usher said other changes in the production involve gender. Since there are more female students than males in second-year Theatre Studies, many of the masculine characters in the play have been changed into women — for instance, two buffoonish servants, and Prospero’s treacherous brother, Antonio, who is now a sister called Antonia.
The Tempest is considered neither a comedy nor tragedy, but a romance. The play that’s yielded such popular quotations as “we are such stuff that dreams are made of” begins with Prospero living on a remote island with his daughter Miranda after being banished from his position as Duke of Milan.
The father and daughter have been on the island for a dozen years (after Caliban helped them learn survival skills), when Prospero divines his jealous sibling, who deposed him, is on a nearby ship. Prospero contrives to cause a shipwreck to bring Antonia and several others to the island — including King Alonso of Naples, his son Ferdinand, some comic-relief servants and treacherous nobles.
Assorted attempted coupes, betrayals and conspiracies transpire. But romance also blooms between Miranda and Ferdinand. “The pure of heart always find love” in the works of Shakespeare, said Usher, who looks forward to bringing his re-envisioned The Tempest in front of an audience.
The many “interesting twists” in this production about revenge and forgiveness should make for intriguing viewing, he predicted. “This offers me challenges I’ve never dealt with before … and if I ever stop learning, I will have to change careers.”
The Tempest runs Feb. 4-6, and 10-13 at 7:30 p.m. (1 p.m. matinees on Feb. 6 and 13). Tickets are $26.80 ($21.80 students/seniors) from the Black Knight Ticket Centre.