The Tempest Steampunked

The Tempest, Steampunked was staged at Sidetrack Theatre in Marrickville, Sydney, in 2012. It was a project entirely driven by Director John Galea, who saw a perfect fit between Shakespeare’s fantastical setting and the artists of Sydney’s Steampunk subculture.

Old man in Victorian safari suit, laughing.

David Attril as Gonzalo

Subcultures are created when individuals who share a passion find their way to each other. They create a space where something that might be unknown or strange to others is the norm. Members of a subculture will have their own rules and rituals, and ways of communicating. It brings them together and it sets them apart. Steampunk is a subculture that is unusual, perhaps even unique, in that its participants have been brought together through love not of an activity, but of an aesthetic. Simply put, it is ‘Victorian futurism’; that is, it replicates or expands on ideas the nineteenth century, the era of steam power, had about how a highly technologised future would look. This means brass and cogs more than plastic and wires. It also means bowler hats and extravagant corsetry and pilot’s goggles and veiled hats. And ray-guns that look like bazookas.

Being so rooted in design, steampunk is especially attractive to artists. If you are a costumier, a jeweller or a graphic novelist you are given unlimited scope within stimulating but reasonably specific parameters. So it might occur to an enterprising director of vision but limited means that people who lavish all this skill on a hobby are going to be in a position to help forge production values that leap beyond the usual co-op possibilities.

Young man in leather pants, no shirt, mechanical wings.

Christopher Hawkins as Ariel as harpy

Man in cherry silk tailcoat, tophat and eyepiece.

David Woodland as Antonio

But why is this a fit for The Tempest, in particular? Apart from the instant freedom afforded by the fantasy setting, John saw this play’s “humanist misanthrope” protagonist as an alter-ego of steampunk idol Nikola Tesla – a man who loved wisdom, creativity and humankind, but struggled to relate to individuals. Dominic McDonald’s Prospero was re-imagined here in a makeshift lab full of electrical experiments and quirky inventions that kept him in touch, at the right level of distance, from all that was going on within his isolated domain.

I am posting about this now because film of the full production is now available on Vimeo, with free access, which is a wonderful opportunity for fans of the play. The usual caveats apply about stage productions watched on video, but it’s properly edited and not fixed camera, so it translates better than most. I highly recommend it as an education resource, not only for the fine delivery of the text, but as a way to show students how Shakespeare can be thrown into all kinds of settings the playwright could not have anticipated, and yet still make sense. Make even more sense, in fact.

Watch The Tempest – Steampunked Here

I was the Dramaturg on this production. It was such a pleasure to work in a situation where the quality of what was being produced was so high. This wasn’t empty showiness, great care was taken with the transmission of the text. I have been to many shows which were funded much more extravagantly and yet showed nothing like the same level of clarity or artistry.

Young woman in corset and clown makeup.

Emily Watson as Trincula had a memorable trick of drinking from a bottle by sticking it in her cleavage and lying on her back. It’s the first time I’ve laughed watching that scene.

Young woman and middle-aged man in strange garments

Lana Kershaw as Miranda and Dominic McDonald as Prospero

To get a fuller sense of the ideas behind the concept and the connections the Director was making, here is a conversation I had with John about steampunk in general and this production in particular:

The magnificent costumes were by Elizabeth Ellwell-Cook, and the giant mechanical iris, and much of the gadgetry were created by Karl Cook. Images above also courtesy of Bess and Karl. You can find them at Cote & Cutler.

Poster showing silhouette of airship in a storm at sea. Text: Shakespeare's The Tempest

5 thoughts on “The Tempest Steampunked

  1. I remember going to see this show (twice!) with my family. I loved it beyond words, and in 2014 was thrilled when we studied The Tempest in English at school. Ariel’s talent with the glass balls blew my mind, I was still a kid and hadn’t seen anything like it before.
    The costuming, props, sound/lighting and landscape design all were top-tier as well. And of course the performers themselves were fantastic 😀
    I’m very glad to have stumbled upon this post, it’s vividly reminded me of the whole experience, and I’m so grateful you all made it happen.

    Also, that link to Vimeo sadly no longer works, if it’s possible could you please reupload a working one?

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