Brighton Fringe 2019
Emily’s Carding’s Caliban’s Codex is written and directed by John Knowles with Carding, with use of the natural habitat outside Sweetwerks 2 – the venue utilised in case of rain. Till May 12th.
A figure squats in the grass outside Sweetwerks 2, scavenging amongst torn sheets and tearing out another page of an old book, devilling earth, flummoxing ashes and leaves – remnants of Prospero’s drowned and discarded books. We’re on an isle peopled entirely by Caliban. Caliban jumped ship, and Prospero’s magic abjured, can’t be recalled.
Twelve years on, and Caliban still scurries and eyeballs us the intruders sitting on comfortable pub benches as Emily Carding leaps up on each one, and at one point instructs a chosen Prospero to stroke her hair, the dawn of a relationship soon soured.
Caliban’s Codex, written and directed by John Knowles with Carding, is soundscaped by blackbirds – a particularly insistent one full of sweet noises – and the occasional anachronistic jet. In case of rain, Sweetwerks 2 Studio’s available. We’ve been lucky this week and being 17.10, there’s full sunlight.
Twelve years again, just the period Ariel was trapped in the resinous pine after the witch Sycorax left him there on dying – harsh too to her son Caliban whom she hoped would die. Suckled by wolves whom she punished by gouging out their grey eyes, Caliban flourished awkwardly instead: misshapen, a little Richard III – Carding’s signature role in her first solo Shakespeare. Knowles patterns out blank verse to weave hypnotically in and out of Shakespeare’s own: it works seamlessly, not always the case. All Caliban’s speeches thread their way through it, mostly chronologically.
The twelve years thereafter find happier times when Prospero releases Ariel, earning the island’s gratitude, though making him twelve years a slave. And Prospero’s three–year old daughter Miranda; slowly turning fifteen she explores her sexuality, no innocent, inviting naked bathing and being borne on Caliban’s back through waves. Then she denounces Caliban’s gross advances.
Just as Caliban denounces Prospero’s mere book-learning power, which excludes natural magic, save what Caliban’s taught him. Books are to blame: natural magic is threatened, even though Sycorax is no exemplar of it. Painted black here, worse than Shakespeare’s sketch of her, she’s pronounced black-hearted by her son. Caliban reminds us Sycorax was set adrift to die because a pregnant person can’t be burned at the stake.
Because Shakespeare’s narrative needs extending with pure reference to backstory there’s an occasional eddying as Knowles and Carding add amplitude to material we know so well. The challenge is to extend the story which – punctuated with a few pauses as she leaps at and eyeballs each human – Carding takes forward with a rhetoric of pinched resentment and time bowing even Caliban. Caliban’s ageing fast, desperate to find elixirs to make life bearable, the knowledge of Sycorax resentfully given, that of Prospero’s straight book-learning in shreds and patches balled and hurled into the wind when proving useless. Prospero’s book is full of sour noises on witches, and Carding hurls a torn page at a human’s head. Humans, humans are to blame.
Most of all though Caliban addresses us as the last humans to see this island: the real point of Caliban’s search is to conjure the island’s invisibility beyond a single lifespan, and rescue it permanently: its eco-structure, though that’s not the language used, its way of life, its natural magic; its blackbirds.
This is a superbly realised piece. Not many could pull it off outside the studio, and naturally Carding’s shorn of the stunning synchronized lighting and sound she utilised in Quintessence, her own through-composed piece, which remains the outstanding Fringe theatre piece this reviewer has seen in 2019.
Caliban’s Codex however runs it very close, and others might well disagree about the ordering. It hardly matters though. Carding’s exemplary in vocal delivery, never assuming wind will snatch her words, daring to speak softly and with such registers in a relatively intimate space that aren’t sand-blasted by those jets – from whom her character’s rescuing the island. There’s much about colonialism Knowles and Carding explore in embryo here, never over-stepping or projecting too many contemporary values backwards. Their particular gift is to return us to Shakespeare’s characters and to an extent the limits of what his characters might explore.
And there’s a surprise, a something else that happens, something ghosting at the end which in itself is worth coming for. It leaves wracks behind and you should see them.