21/10/2012 18:39 BST | Updated 21/12/2012 05:12 GMT


The cast mutated until finally it became the group which would perform the play, even if in the performances themselves one of them, the bosun, went awol, absorbed by his search for the best fried chicken in Kennington.

Four years ago when this project began, no-one knew that the great and the good were going to be queuing up to namecheck and quote The Tempest in the wake of the Olympics. That nobody included us.

We'd decided to make a film of a group of a South London youth theatre tackling what was, for most of them, an alien text. Shakespeare might remain at the heart of the debate about national identity, but what does it mean to those who feel instantly alienated from his texts because they represent the establishment: patrician, stuffy, indigestible?

At the start we barely touched on Mr Shakespeare. Exercises dealt with living on a desert island and getting your tongue around strange words, like "pignuts" or "Sycorax". Somewhere in this thicket of language there was a story which the actors began to piece together. Then, as the film observes, a realisation emerged. This was a play which wasn't about the establishment. It was about them. About Africa, the slave trade, the web of history which lead to many of them being born here, on a cold, strange island run by authoritarian bookkeepers.

We didn't want to make a TV drama doc about problem children and their wayward ways. Over the course of nine months, hundreds of hours of rehearsal were lost with absentee actors texting in at the last moment with ever more baroque excuses. Actors dropped out and popped up out of nowhere. The cast mutated until finally it became the group which would perform the play, even if in the performances themselves one of them, the bosun, went awol, absorbed by his search for the best fried chicken in Kennington. The thing that was exciting wasn't these petty fly-on-the-wall obstacles. It was the gradual but comprehensive engagement that the actors discovered with the play and with Shakespeare himself.

For us, as filmmakers, it was a constant fascination to observe the way in which the text fitted into the lives of the actors and how in turn they made it feel like something vibrant and alive. The film mixes performance from the rehearsal rooms and the final production, but also footage we shot in Kennington Park.

Once, when our female Stephano was bashing Trinculo over the head with a plastic bottle, a group of passing drunks started jeering him, telling him to stand up for himself. All the park scenes suggested something striking: Shakespeare still belongs here, just down the road from where he worked. His words and his characters are still at home in the parks and streets of South London. It's as though, liberated from the theatre, they can really come out to play.

Then, out of nowhere, whilst the film was being edited in Hackney, came the riots. Some of our actors, Roy, who plays Caliban, and Zephryn, who plays Prospero, had talked only a few weeks earlier about the way life on the estates offers a split path. Either you get sucked into the dark side of petty criminality, or you take the braver but harder option of trying to educate yourself. They also noted that the ones who chose the braver option need all the help they can get from society. Otherwise who knows what kind of a kingdom we'll end up living in.

It's no surprise that the ones who are most aware of these issues are those who have to live with them. But it's hard for them to get heard. Their voices need a forum where they can be listened to. Oddly, Shakespeare offered them this.

As we filmed we observed the performers finding common ground with the characters they were portraying. 21-year-old Zephryn's Prospero is obviously younger than usual casting would have him, but Zephryn's vigour captures his forcefulness.

This isn't a dreamy old man: it's someone with a strong agenda to fulfil. Locked into the curious socio-dynamics of the play there's a whole commentary on the way in which class and race contribute to your fate.

Nature versus nurture. From the social fabric of Prospero's island the actors began to discern how much the characters they were playing had in common with themselves. South London might look different to how it was five hundred years ago, but the actors discovered that the issues haven't altered as much as anyone would have expected.

So we discovered that The Tempest still belongs to South London. And in spite of their own surprise, Shakespeare still belongs to everyone, including the young. We just have to ensure that they are given ways to access him. And to be reminded that in this brave new world, there's more to being a hero than sporting prowess.

Tempest is in UK cinemas 2 November