Starving from Disaster in PETA’s The Tempest

The most moving scenes in the Philippine Educational Theater Association’s The Tempest–produced in collaboration, with The British Council and The Japan Foundation–stage starvation.  Shakespeare’s shipwrecked nobles–Sebastian (transformed into Sebastiana), Alonso (transformed into Alonsa), Gonzalo, and Antonio–are thrilled by a vision of a feast, only to find that they have been tricked by vengeful spirits. These same actors play survivors of Typhoon Yolanda, known internationally as Typhoon Haiyan. When Sebastiana, Alonso, Gonzalo, and Antonio cast off their noble robes, they inhabit a new narrative mingled with Shakespeare’s antique romance. As nameless Yolanda survivors, these same four actors run around the stage reaching for the promise of canned goods and bottled water emerging from hands offering aid from beneath the stage. These hands disappear beneath trapdoors before the survivors can grab water or food. The promise of aid is likened to Prospero’s spirits’ vengeful taunting of naughty Italian nobility. In another scene, the desperate survivors of Yolanda listen to the voices of Local Government, National Government, and International Organizations. These institutions are transformed into allegorical figures dressed like kings who all promise livelihood, restoration, and basic needs. In the end, these allegories provide nothing useful. They leave the stage squabbling between themselves.

PETA revives collective memories derived from news reports in 2014. These memories have since been politicized, transformed into the memory of President Aquino’s regime’s ineptitude and conspiracy theories about misused and displaced aid. But the turn to Shakespeare allows PETA to dissociate tragedy from factional politics in order to remind the play’s audience of how terrifying it can be to be thirsty, to be hungry, to be without shelter. Even if the sufferings and hopes of shipwrecked Italian nobles or even of Caliban can seem alien and alienating, the reminder of common basic needs brings the extent of their suffering home.

PETA’s The Tempest is able to embrace Shakespeare. PETA’s version of The Tempest wraps Shakespeare’s tragicomedy in a series of framing devices–a narrator who describes the play and who makes it accessible and an additional narrative that explains why the embedded story still matters. Stunningly, it decentralizes what has traditionally been considered most important about Shakespeare in order to embrace his translation across geographical boundaries and time. Shakespeare’s language is spoken, but interrupted with modern English asides (Caliban, awkwardly, appends an eco-warrior’s diatribe when he rails against Prospero’s cruelty).  The play is repeatedly interrupted for song, for scenes set in Tacloban, for the multilingual commentary of its new narrator. The continuity of Shakesperean prestige is made possible through the potential for fruitful disruption.


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