“Perhaps you know this story already.”
Western Edge Youth Art’s Caliban draws from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but it is an adaptation that wreaks perfect havoc on its source text, layering the urgency of climate change into its plot and characters. Caliban zeroes in on the frustrating inaction of a global wealthy elite and highlights the capacity of individuals in responding to the seemingly insurmountable problem of climate change.
In the current political climate where truth is under siege and climate change—an objective fact—is doubted and considered a subjective concern, Caliban asks a simple, obvious question: what if we could change the world? What if we could convince a single person that their actions could absolutely shift the course of the entire planet and guarantee its ecological security? What if the cost was just one man’s personal wealth?
The successes of the production lie in the relevance and ease with which it adapts from its Shakespearean roots. The Tempest provided the production with a loose skeleton from which they easily broke free – a possibly familiar tale is skillfully retold as a fable that sees its primary struggle as one between environmental catastrophe and human intervention. The adaptation has Prospero (Natalie Lucic) as the manipulative, matriarchal White savior whose daughter Miranda (Achai Deng) is the key to unlocking the pocket of wealthy Afghani billionaire and fossil fuel investor Ferdinand (Abraham Herasan). Leading them down this path is artificial intelligence system Ariel (Piper Huynh), whose finds her foil in Caliban, (Oti Willoughby) a desolate islander whose deeply human emotionality challenges Ariel’s technological omniscience.
Caliban presents a potent narrative about the immediacy of environmental catastrophe faced by the Pacific Islands in particular that those of us on safer landmasses—for now—primarily understand through screens. The strength in the narratives of Phano, the Samoan chef, (played by Rex Pelman) and Caliban lie in the fury their poignant losses inspire, as opposed to a hopeless sense of pity. When Ariel, in trying to console Caliban, tells him that she will work to ensure Caliban’s suffering “happens to as few other people as possible,” she is startlingly rebuked. “No one. What has happened to me, it must happen to no one,” Caliban states. The finality of his insistence is a reminder that to resist the tides of climate change is to insist on immediate action, a reminder that real lives are—have always been—at stake, and none of them are expendable. Soft consolations are absolutely unacceptable.
Another particularly effective scene includes a sequence of Miranda and Phano’s nightmares. Phano’s absurdist nightmare sees him facing a swordfish’s (also played by Oti Willoughby) accusation about its species’ extinction. Phano attempts to empathise with the swordfish that he cooked the week before, citing his Western Samoan heritage and the environmental catastrophe facing his family. However, as the swordfish duly notes, the difference is that the swordfish leaves him alone. “Your people cooked my ocean,” the swordfish furiously decries, highlighting a central truth of climate change. Human industrialisation and consumption has been a key instigator to ecological collapse; islands in the Pacific are rapidly sinking and entire ways of living are facing absolute threat. But animals, seen and unseen, face a much swifter, irreversible extinction to which they are almost totally powerless.
Immediately following this comically tragic absurd diatribe, Miranda’s deeply human encounter with a child soldier from her past is startlingly empathetic, highlighting the link between conditions that exacerbate war in Middle Eastern lands rich in oil, and a global economy that relies on a shrinking and increasingly contentious supply of fossil fuels to sustain its trade.
The ensemble’s diversity of knowledge makes Caliban a production that manages to efficiently and unerringly highlight the personal realities of massive geopolitical conflicts, tackling the totalising force that is the global fossil fuel economy head on. The production destabilises the argument that creating contributing to short-term economic stability (through fossil fuel investments) is an appropriately sustainable action by showing that all it does is maintain the current global economic order in its final bid to burn up every last remaining resource before everything goes to hell. Caliban pinpoints not climate scepticism as the force standing in the way of action, but greed. Human greed of those who have a lot trying to accumulate more and more, a greed more totalizing than the inevitability of environmental catastrophe.
Another raw contemporary issue that Caliban manages to succinctly portray is that of the increasingly contentious question about what constitutes ‘fact’ by zeroing in on mainstream media’s complicity in creating saleable products. When Caliban arrives on St Kilda beach after scaling a twelve-metre sea-wall, he is faced with a media presence whose curiosity extends only to where he has come from and the novelty of his arrival, taking no notice of his environmental refugee status signaling the irrevocability of climate change’s effects. This short segment hits home excruciatingly accurately in the current political climate where ‘fact’ has come under so much doubt that despotic heads of state can make blatantly untrue claims and get away with becoming the next American President.
However, where the production struggles is in its inability to holistically present a balance between its drama, comedy, and urgent political call-to-arms. While these elements intersect cleverly in the scenes previously mentioned, other key concerns in Caliban such as the well-pointed accusation against the extremely wealthy – “60 people have as much wealth as half the people on this planet” – become bogged down in arguably pettier familial and romantic drama. The comic relief, generally arriving in the character of Phano, is enjoyable but dips into the beguiled Samoan jokester stereotype of functioning as a truth-speaking jester archetype. Tonally, it also offsets the real, immediate, and dangerous stakes of the environmental disaster.
In general, the production struggled to maintain a clear division between archetype and stereotype in this allegorical tale: Caliban’s arc replays an uncomfortable ‘noble savage’ arc, Phano seldom moves beyond the trope of the naïve and carefree Samoan jokester, and Miranda earned only just enough credibility right at the end of the production to not fully allow herself to be typecast as the damsel-in-distress. The structure of the production—a mythologisation of an impending global disaster that relied on immediately and comfortably recognizable archetypes—inadequately supported its hard-hitting political accusations against passive inaction and nihilism of the political elite.
The production also struggles to resolve the structural conventions and naturalistic character arcs it sets up. The dramatic build-up of Caliban’s march towards Ferdinand ends abruptly in Ferdinand’s swift murder, which follows on the immediate tale of Ferdinand’s acquiescence to investing his wealth in mass production of Ariel in resolving climate change. Within a minute, the solution the production has been hurtling towards the entire show is resolved and then undercut. The audience is left with little time to reconcile either intellectually or emotionally with this outcome before the play-within-a-play convention wraps up the show in a stylistic flourish that it perhaps hasn’t quite earned.
Despite these hiccups, the production remains an admirably ambitious piece of theatre that is swings some harsh political facts into its audiences amidst the gentle truths of the characters’ personal stories. Other set elements, including lighting and live music, provided an effective accompaniment to the production, although the latter occasionally overwhelmed the performances during quieter and subtler scenes. The post-show Q&A also highlighted the ensemble’s investment in their own arguments, with set and costumes all sustainably sourced in a gesture that larger theatre companies would do well to emulate, especially in their own productions about climate change.
Caliban urges against the idea of a one-stop solution that could instantly fix the world, but it buoys its audiences into a sense that the urgency of the situation demands individuals—including theatre companies—take actionable steps in their everyday processes to push back the tides. And that, perhaps, we did know already.