Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project
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The Tempest

Lewis Baumander; Choreography by René Highway

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Lewis Baumander’s adaptation of The Tempest is set on the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British Columbia at the time of their colonization. The production was a collaboration between theatre professionals of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal descent, with the goal of presenting a “New World interpretation of the conflict that results when a harmonious indigenous culture is forced to accommodate an encroaching alien presence” (“Native Culture”). Designer William Chesney took his inspiration from the culture of the Haida nation, and attempted to blend elements of Haida cultural aesthetics with the outdoor setting of Earl Bales Park in Toronto. Choreographer René Highway (who was of Cree descent) combined modern and Native dance styles. The result was a production that sought to bring the post-colonial discourse around Shakespeare’s The Tempest home to a Canadian context. Without altering Shakespeare’s text, Baumander dramatizes both historical and contemporary conflicts between Aboriginal and colonial cultures.

In her article about Baumander’s Tempest , Helen Peters notes that

Casting Caliban as a Canadian Aboriginal highlights the ruthless power and control of white man over native – the colonizing Prospero over Caliban who can only complain: ‘For I am all the subjects that you have which first was mine own king: and here you sty me in this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me the rest o’ th’ island.’ (200)

By shifting the role of Caliban from an ambiguous 'native' to the specific First Nations affiliation in Canada, Baumander demonstrates that Shakespeare’s language still wields incredible power. Similarly, it shows how adaptation can be used to charm and shock a mainstream audience that has grown accustomed to the Shakespearean ‘original’.

As well as addressing the overt colonial oppression of colonization, Baumander’s Tempest also has ‘post’-colonial resonances. In a review of the 1989 production, Brian Davis describes the image of Caliban, who is drunk on Stephano and Trinculo’s liquor:

In a stupor the enslaved Caliban staggers around the stage crying ‘Freedom, freedom,’ a common enough delusion among men when they are drunk. Some of the audience, clearly accustomed to laughing at drunken Indians, found this scene funny, but it was the kind of nervous laughter that comes of a bad conscience. This Caliban is not a spirit that Canadians can laugh off lightly. His claims on our conscience are both pressing and real. When he talks of his untold torments we would do well to listen carefully. Every filthy epithet heaped on his head forces us to wonder why. What did Caliban ever do to deserve this? (qtd. from Peters 200)

The discomfort created by staging one of Canada’s most shameful legacies might be jarring enough to motivate awareness and action in the audience.   The danger, however, is that it may in turn breed mere pity. Portraying First Nations people as broken, disempowered Indians risks perpetuating the subjugation of First Nations people by the dominant society. Other Shakespearean adaptations (many undertaken by all-Native casts and crews), have put the concerns of First Nations people ahead of the colonial text with the goal of reflecting an empowered, creative force headed towards a positive future.   Productions like De-ba-jeh-mu-jig's New World Brave, which was a collective creation by and for young Aboriginal men, show a positive image of First Nations people while acknowledging the challenges imposed by Canada’s colonial legacy. Similarly, Ondinnok's adaptation Hamlet-Le Malécite addresses the loss of cultural identity in aboriginal communities by aligning Shakespeare's Hamlet with the history of the Maliseet (Malecite, Malécite, Malecites, Malisit) tribe. For other Native and non-Native adaptations of The Tempest, please visit CASP’s database.

Mat Buntin

Works Cited

“Native Culture Shines in a New Look at a Timely and Powerful Tale.” Press Release. Toronto: Skylight Theatre. 1989.

Peters, Helen. “The Aboriginal Presence in Canadian Theatre and the Evolution of Being Canadian.” Theatre Research International 18.3 (1993): 197-205.

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