Caliban: “a most delicate monster”

As Firebird prepare to inspire audiences once again with their latest project, The Nine Lessons of Caliban, coming to the Bristol Old Vic studio this week, we take a look at who they are, what they believe in and how they’re putting it in to practice this time around.

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Firebird Theatre is a company of sixteen disabled actors who have been making plays and performances together for over twenty years. In that time they have developed a style that characteristically combines music, devised work, text, and ensemble acting.

Our relationship with Firebird goes back more than 10 years. They’re a regular set of familiar faces around the building, but last year they became our associate theatre company. You might remember this particular piece, which was shown as a work in progress as part of Bristol Ferment in January 2011.

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“Theatre is important to us. People used to think disabled people with learning difficulties couldn’t do anything, but when we get on that stage we can show people what we can do.” Firebird

Collaboration is also at the heart of what they do, and The Nine Lessons of Caliban was developed alongside Bristol poet and creative writer Claire Williamson who worked with the company to produce poetry inspired by their interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

“When we looked at people in the story of The Tempest, we put on their shoes to help us understand them. We channelled our experiences into them, so that we could feel like them and understand them. We expressed our feelings through them.” Firebird

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During this process, their focus became Caliban, one of Shakespeare’s most complex and ambiguous characters; deformed, wild, malevolent, and – as Firebird present him – misunderstood.

He is the only inhabitant of the island not to take a human form, a “deformity” that extends beyond his physical appearance: “as disproportioned in his manner as in his shape”. He is left alone on the island after the death of his mother, befriended by Prospero upon his arrival, trained by him, taught language and kept in his company to perform menial chores. Later, when Caliban attempts to rape Prospero’s daughter Miranda, he is confined and enslaved by Prospero, who threatens to punish him. Realising he has been forced into servitude on the very island he believes to be his by birth, Caliban plots to murder Prospero.

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Unusual, you might think, that Firebird would align themselves with a character who has broadly been interpreted as The Tempest’s brutish, slow villain. But a closer look at the play reveals the link to be a creative one. Whilst Caliban is coarse, vulgar and mishapened, he differs from Shakespeare’s other rogues in that his speech contains an unusual number of passages in verse – a form normally reserved for noble and dignified heroes.

For example, this passage, in which he describes how he Prospero treats him:

            “All the infections that the sun sucks up

            From bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall and make him

            By inch-meal a disease! His spirits hear me

            And yet I needs must curse. But they’ll nor pinch,

            Fright me with urchin–shows, pitch me i’ the mire,

            Nor lead me, like a firebrand, in the dark

            Out of my way, unless he bid ’em; but

            For every trifle are they set upon me;

            Sometime like apes that mow and chatter at me

            And after bite me, then like hedgehogs which

            Lie tumbling in my barefoot way and mount

            Their pricks at my footfall; sometime am I

            All wound with adders who with cloven tongues

            Do hiss me into madness.”

In another he speaks of the island homeland he feels he has been robbed of, and produces some of the most beautiful and stirring imagery in the whole play:

            “Be not afraid, the isle is full of noises,

            Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

            Sometimes a thousand twanging instruments

            Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices,

            That if I then had waked after long sleep,

            Would make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,

            The clouds methought would open, and shew riches

            Ready to drop upon me: when I wak’d,

            I cried to dream again.”

Firebird have seized on his ability to articulate his sense of identity and sensitivity to his treatment as something incredibly humanising. It’s this delicate, poetic side that they have combined with their own experiences to produce an imaginative and sensitive response to Caliban’s thoughts and feelings that also reflects upon the challenges of disability:

“Caliban reminded us of some of our experiences as disabled people. If you don’t fit in, people treat you differently; they don’t think you are good enough and they don’t treat you with respect, they take away your strength and your rights. When you are told that you are stupid, ugly, mental, slow, sub-normal, you start thinking that that is how you are and you start acting that way. We think it was the same for Caliban.

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When Prospero and Miranda arrive on the island, Caliban welcomes them but soon Prospero acts as if the island is his and Caliban is treated like a monster. We know this is because of Miranda; Prospero punishes Caliban for liking Miranda but we also wonder if Prospero just didn’t think Caliban was good enough for his daughter. Caliban and Miranda were friends and when they grew up then it was natural for them to be more than friends. But Miranda had to do what her father wanted and he didn’t want her with someone like Caliban.

We think that ‘Nine Lessons’ shows Caliban as someone who is human just like everyone else. He has to grow up quickly because he loses his mother when he is very young, he has to learn to survive. He learns hard lessons but he is treated very badly by Prospero and Miranda.” Firebird

Here’s some feedback from the show’s very earliest performances:

“An amazing re-telling of parts of The Tempest put across in a way that will make you think.”

“Had the piece been devised by those without learning difficulties, many layers would have been lost, and Caliban’s voice would not have shouted so loud.”

“I can’t remember the last time a piece of poetry haunted me so much.” 

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