La Tempestad was first performed by the Honduran Mosquitia Sinska Theatre Group in June 2018, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the arrival of the Swiss Corporation Agency in La Mosquita, and within the framework of the 70th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, to promote respect for human rights through the performing arts.
Following a short tour in its own country, the screening of the show for York International Shakespeare Festival 2021 marked the first time the performance had been seen in another country. Accompanied by several videos of behind-the-scenes process and interviews, and an informative Zoom discussion with the actors and creatives, it gave a fascinating insight into the political, environmental and socio-economic histories, traditions, beliefs and cultures of the forty mile band of coastline skirting the Mediterranean Sea between Honduras and Nicaragua; an area that was under British rule during the period of the Spanish crown, a significant zone of pirate activity, and where the inhabitants were not allowed to practice their Catholic faith. The Mosquitia kings, chosen by British rule, were educated in England and enforced English culture and customs on their subjects. The area was also under the rule of a Jamaican vice-kingdom, which brought its own traditions. English ships brought with them both African slaves and British citizens, who settled and intermarried. Into this melting pot came the Moravian church, from which emerged a munsee of Mosquitia converts who actively renounced the traditional Catholic practices of their own peoples. It heralded the beginning of the indigenous people struggling to hold on to any vestige of their own identity.
The director of ‘La Tempestad’, Tito Ochoa, studied stage direction at the Academy of Art of the Muses of the Czech Republic, and in his more than 35 years of theatrical work he has combined acting, directing, writing and teaching. In Honduras alone, his work has included founding the Rascanigus Theatre, being director of the National School of Dramatic Art, President of the Asociación Cultura Memorias and Professor at Javeriana University, the Externado University and the Universida del Rosario in Colombia. He explained,
“In literal terms, it [The Tempest] relates the meeting of two civilizations, but in metaphorical terms it is a political crisis that leads to social and humanitarian crises, like the ones we are experiencing… that is, the history of Central America portrayed. Parallel to the drama, love germinates; a relationship of dominance and imposition is established to enslave, and that establishes a conflict of a colonial order.
The community actors, all indigenous to the area, have day to day lives ranging from students, teachers and engineers; none of them were professional actors, but were selected through an extensive audition process and given intensive training in collaboration with the Luis Poma theatre in Salvador and its director, Roberto Salomón.
The selection of the actors was made through a casting where at least one hundred people of the ethnic group attended; the learning process about the performance and the assembly of the same lasted at least six months. The work addresses the theme of the territories conquered by Europe, the subjugation of their aborigines to slavery, the imposition of foreign culture, trying to erase the historical memory of the subjugated peoples. The creation and staging of this play was adapted to the cosmogony, history and living conditions of the Mosquitia; through this staging we were able to find the reality, culture and idiosyncrasy of that town. Members of the Mosquitia ethnic group who had no experience in acting were included in this staging and were involved in an exhaustive assembly process through exercises and teaching processes, managing to represent a work that is very complex and difficult, even for professional actors. The idea is that we carry out a community theatre with people from the community and show that these people should be treated with the same respect and nobility as any other person from another region.”
The resulting production is an astute adaptation of Shakespeare’s last play that is an elegant mixture of culture, tradition, dances and history of the Mosquitia people that loses nothing of the essence of the original and is a fitting tribute to the indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples of the country.
In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Prospero, Duke of Milan, was stripped of power by his brother Antonio, put in a boat and handed over to the mercy of the waves, with his daughter Miranda. They landed on a desert island where the sorceress Sycorax had been banished. Thanks to his magical arts, Prospero freed several spirits imprisoned by the magician, including Ariel, and subjected them to his orders. He now had at his service the son of the sorceress, Caliban, a monstrous, abject and naive creature who is the only inhabitant of the island.
Prospero and Miranda lived on the island for twelve years. A ship in which the usurper Antonio, his ally Alonso, king of Naples, and Fernando, the latter's son, were travelling, was then shipwrecked off the island's coast because of Prospero's enchantments. The passengers were saved, but they believed that Fernando had died, while Fernando thought that the others had drowned. Fernando and Miranda met and fell in love as soon as they saw each other. Ariel, by order of Prospero, prepared some scares for Antonio and Alonso. Antonio fell down in terror and Alonso repented of his cruelty, was reconciled with Prospero and recovered his son Fernando. The ship was saved by the force of the spells, and Prospero and the others prepared to leave the island, after Prospero had renounced magic. The island remained in the power of Caliban.
The word ‘Caliban’, according to some Mexican scholars, comes from the word ‘cannibal’, and in the Mosquitia region there were historically known to be ramen, so this reinforced the choice of the play, but it was, thankfully, the least of the reasons it resonated with the Mosquitia community. It is a text that speaks of two worlds in collision, lending itself well to finding similarities between the indigenous peoples of Central America and the European colonisers. There is an assumption that progress can only come through outside influences and the subjugation of the history, traditions and culture of its original peoples; an arrogance that is sadly infiltrating indigenous groups across the globe. Today, the Honduras government is systematically selling the country piece by piece, perceiving that only investment from foreign multi-nationals will bring progress, giving no consideration to what could be achieved through local initiatives. It all begs the question, “What is progress, and who gets to decide when it has been achieved?”. Ocheo has envisioned and adapted Shakespeare’s play as a political tool, performed by Mosquitia community, in defence of their own territories and landscape.
The Mosquito coast is also an area of severe weather conditions and ecological disruptions. Traditional industries of lobster, green turtle and shellfish diving, and salt manufacture, are disappearing as the oceans are depleted, and frequent cyclones and hurricanes mean that the coastline is subject to serious flooding, land erosion and deforestation. Home to some of the poorest people on the planet, each new hurricane brings fresh devastation. In November 2020 alone, both Hurricane Iota and Hurricane Eta struck in quick succession; both category 5 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, they flattened whole villages in their wake, killing citizens and fishermen stranded in the water, knocked down trees, burst river banks, made roads impassable and meant there was no power available. These are a people who know the true meaning of ‘tempest’ all too well.
In The Tempest, Prospero represents the colonial master who uses his power to coerce both the climate and the indigenous people into behaving in the ways he wants; both are his 'slaves'. He controls the weather of the sea and the island, to serve anthropogenic interest, changing the fundamental features of the earth and the ecosystem, his arrogant and ecophobic attitude and activities throughout the play reflecting how the privileged humans have arbitrarily manipulated the environment as well as the underprivileged indigenous peoples. Prospero’s attitude was comprised of strong abhorrence for both natural environment and the indigenous people, though both were of the utmost service to him.
Caliban is a symbol of indigenous people whose identity, history, and culture are being taken away by colonisation. The setting of the island where Caliban and his mother live takes place, for Shakespeare, somewhere in the Mediterranean, but the non-specificity of the location caters to the endless possibilities for the readers, and in La Tempestad, it translates well to the situation of the Mosquitia people, highlighting the significance of colonialism and its impact on the indigenous people and on the earth. Language plays a crucial role here. The language that the natives are taught by the colonial masters becomes itself a tool of resistance for them. Caliban learns the language taught by Prospero, but he also uses the same language to register his protest against his colonial master.
Written at the crossroads of pastoral tradition and the wide forthcoming technological prospects, Shakespeare’s The Tempest sheds light on the intermingled relationship between climate change and indigenous values. Through the complex patterns of myth, magic, symbols and motifs, Shakespeare shows how indigenous culture, language, and history across the world are alienated and marginalized to the point of extinction, along with mindless manipulation and controlling of environmental resources. We tend to think of environmental issues as something of a ‘modern’ phenomenon, but Shakespeare’s The Tempest foregrounded the possibility of an impending dystopia when humans would no longer remain simply biological agents; but by virtue of their capacity to cause massive climatic changes, would soon turn into geological force. Despite the fact that the indigenous values are dedicated to the nurturing of the environment and eco-systems, it is the indigenous people who are most affected by the human induced climatic disasters. Therefore, as the play seems to suggest, a rigorous revisiting to the indigenous values remains the most effective possible way to save the earth and the lives on it.
The Tempest is always talked about as a play of reconciliation, but Ochoa has deliberately left La Tempistad without any sense of resolution of the deep-seated issues. In the Zoom discussion, he explained to Philip Parr, Artistic Director of York International Shakespeare Festival,
‘At the end of the play, Prospero forgives those who have wronged him, but he does not forgive Caliban, so for us this is the tipping point in the relationship with the colonised, saying that Caliban cannot do anything against Prospero, but in our ending Lyomides, the goddess of the water, re-establishes the order that Prospero has unsettled in the name of progress. So in the end, it is not Caliban who defeats Prospero, but nature taking back its place against what progress has usurped or destroyed, and this is very important for us, given that we are a country that suffers from hurricanes that destroy, lack of climate planning and excessive exploitation of nature. This is a debate that we are trying to rescue; the relationship between the indigenous people and nature. And so, in the end, the play is about reconciliation, but the reconciliation with nature.
A reconciliation in the future? We have to do something about it, but it’s not up to Prospero to fix it; it’s up to us outside the play to make that change. The Spirit of the Air points out that responsibility as an invitation to the audience and the wider public.’
La Tempestad was a brilliant example of what can happen when someone takes up the baton to champion ordinary people. There are some lovely testimonies to how participating gave confidence and boosted the self esteem to the cast members, and they all gave stunning performances. The play was in turns extremely funny and very emotional, but it also played its important part in moving the conversations on in Mosquita, and had its place on an international stage, because those same conversations need to be had across many parts of our world today. The audience were as mesmerising as the players; every person attending was focused on the story unfolding, and I had tears flowing when the applause rang out. Shakespeare, through the cast and creatives, was telling their story, the questions it posed were their questions, and when those questions begin to be acknowledged, uttered and brought out into the open, then the possibility of shackles being broken and wounds being healed is immeasurably closer...
La Tempestad is shown as part of York International Shakespeare Festival 2021. The full programme can be seen here.
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