Dystopian themes are not something uncommon these days.
The alarming frequency of post-apocalyptic themed books and movies bombarding us every other week seems to suggest we can never get enough of this end of days phenomenon.
However, when David Glass, a London-based director and devised/physical theatre exponent, decided to set his KL staging of Shakespeare’s The Tempest – a mystical play about revenge and magic – at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac) in a “post-human world”, it was never about following the herd.
No, Glass had a more compelling reason to stage this production.
“The Tempest takes place on an island that you’re not going to be saved from. So, it can become like a long holiday in Bali if you’re not careful and that’s not very good for drama. I wanted to put in place a much more powerful, urgent story set at the end of humanity,” explains Glass, 61, during a recent interview at KLPac.
The American-born director describes The Tempest a “wandering play” referring to it being one of Shakespeare’s last works, one that is not tied and driven by a dramatic plot.
The play, aptly renamed David Glass’ Tempest, opens at KLPac’s Pentas 2 on March 28.
Glass, who is leaning towards more environmental-based theatre works, found it satisfying to reinterpret this work.
He is blunt about where The Tempest stands in the Bard’s food chain.
“It’s not a great Shakespearean story but it’s full of wonderful potential, particularly for theatricality and imagery,” says Glass, whose recent works include The Brides (2017) and This Changes Everything: Requiem For Change (2018).
“My approach to theatre is very much about devising and collaborations. So when the KL Shakespeare Players (KLSP) asked me if I would direct it, I said ‘let’s do it as a devised collaborative work’,” he adds.
Glass, the founder The Lost Child Project (in 1998), a theatre initiative that gives street children around the world a chance to voice their stories, is no stranger to the Malaysian stage. Last year, he did theatre workshops with KLSP for its Shakespeare Demystified series (the Romeo And Juliet show).
David Glass’ Tempest is presented in collaboration with KLSP, which already has a background in promoting the Bard’s works in an accessible way in Malaysia.
“We are known for presenting Shakespeare’s stories and making them accessible for the audience. But after eight years, we want to surprise and shock the audience,” says Lim Kien Lee, 45, who is one of the co-founders of KLSP and will be playing Antonio in David Glass’ Tempest.
The rest of the cast includes veteran actor Lim Soon Heng, 65, co-founder of KLSP, Butoh dancer Lee Swee Keong, 52, stage actor/Pitapat Theatre founder Seng Soo Ming, 39, and relative newcomers Nikki Basharudin, 30, Teoh Jun Vinh, 24, and Zul Zamir, 28.
The Tempest, one of the Bard’s last written plays, centres on the sorcerer Prospero who is denied his rightful claim to the dukedom of Milan after his brother Antonio usurps him.
In the story, Prospero (played by Soon Heng) and his daughter Miranda (played by Nikki) are shipped out to sea and set adrift. They eventually land on a remote island, making it their new home. Prospero, using his magic, rules the island.
Twelve years later, his brother Antonio and his co-conspirators also get stranded on the very same island. With some relish, Prospero plots his revenge, using spells and supernatural beings, with Lee playing Ariel and Seng playing Caliban.
Essentially, The Tempest tackles powerful themes such as family, revenge, betrayal and the supernatural and for Glass, it is imperative to bring these themes to the forefront.
“Right now, the show’s flow has been changed. There is an urgency about it that the (original) play doesn’t have,” says Glass.
For starters, none of Shakespeare’s text will be used at all and while the characters are retained, the plot has also been altered considerably.
Glass has stripped the play down to the core and rebuilt it collaboratively with his actors through a (theatre) laboratory process which lasted for nearly three weeks.
Glass recalls how plastic bags turned out to be useful for this production when he got the cast to dress Nikki up as a princess.
“These plastic bags look absolutely beautiful like some wonderful piece of Gucci trash culture and in the end, it looked like a girl in her bedroom with garbage everywhere. You have to go then and use these things. Everything is fair game for me. I’m not a purist in any way,” says Glass.
From the unconventional stage set-up to how the show’s texts were rewritten, David Glass’ Tempest sounds like intriguing “new” work.
“Shakespeare’s language is great, but through devising it this way, we are able to bring forward an imaginary and provocative world,” says Soon Heng.
Nikki, who has discovered much about the father-daughter dynamic between Prospero and Miranda, sees this play as a reflection of modern times.
“It is incredibly relevant to what the world has become now, with capitalism being a broken system, the destruction of our planet and what we are leaving future generations with. But it’s the stories of the individuals that continue running despite it all … the tempest within all of us,” she says.
As for the devised nature of the show, Nikki, whose past works include Duality (2017) and The Fall Of The House Of Usher (2018), reveals that the limits of her physicality had been pushed beyond what she thought was possible.
“Through it I’ve also built trust in my own body and its abilities. It’s incredibly heartening to have a director who isn’t afraid to stretch you physically, mentally and emotionally,” says Nikki.
“He has taught all of us a physical language that you don’t see much on stage here. We were reminded to be alive, stay alive, don’t be a lifeless body on stage. The focus is always on the audience and what they see. No self indulgence allowed, thankfully,” she mentions.
In the end, Glass agrees that every story has its way of being told. But it’s the clarity of the story that is most crucial to him.
“It’s trying to find the car crash between the practicality of it and the needs of the audience,” concludes Glass.