Shakespeare's last complete play, The Tempest tells the story of Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, who has been shipwrecked for 12 years on an enchanted island where has devoted himself to the study of magic. As the play opens, he plots to restore his daughter to her inheritance by conjuring a great storm that brings his old enemies to his shores.
Prospero's magic is a finely wrought metaphor for the theatre's own illusion and so the role of the aging magician who gives up his powers once he has seen his enemies defeated and his daughter married is traditionally a valedictorian speech for a veteran actor - just as it was Shakespeare's swan song. The play is shot through with dark reflections on the abuse of power and the nature of captivity, but the theatrical focus on a retiring great encourages audiences to see Prospero's magic as wholly benign.
William Hutt, then reigning king of the Stratford company, played the role there in 1999 before taking a year off from the stage. He assayed it again in 2005 before retiring at age 85. He died two years later.
Film and stage actor Christopher Plummer, long may he reign, is now 80 and took to the same thrust stage last June to abjure his rough magic in his turn. But not before he had done his own conjuring with the farewell speech that begins "Our revels now are ended. These our actors,/ As I foretold you, were all spirits, and/ Are melted into air, into thin air...."
At the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, artistic director Des McAnuff whipped up a show that was full of stage magic - twinkling lights, acrobatic spirits and a levitating Prospero - but reviews for these effects were mixed while Plummer earned the accolades. It was a performance that was more overtly dramatic than Hutt's had been, creating a man more visibly angry than the huge but weary intelligence of his predecessor, but both actors showed similar dexterity with the text, breathing life into every line. Plummer's performance deepened as the play progressed, giving a particularly poignant rendition of the key speeches at the end of the play.
While blessed with a lusty wild child in the figure of Trish Lindstrom's Miranda, Plummer's real partner in the production was the otherworldly pixie created by Julyana Soelistyo as Ariel. With both her crisp movements and efficient delivery, she created a delightful little birdlike counterpoint to Plummer's heavy figure. The weight they brought to their relationship infused Prospero's final abdication of his magic with a real sense of loss.
There was much less sense of any emotional stake in the plot of revenge and renewal played out by a cast of secondary characters led by Peter Hutt's oddly mannered rendition of Alonso, grieving for the son he believes drowned.
As the comic relief, Geraint Wyn Davies's tartan-clad Stephano and Bruce Dow's mincing Trinculo produced the occasional, very welcome flash of something truly nasty in their attempts to subjugate the monster Caliban and overthrow Prospero, but mainly this rather hoary comedy remained just that.
After success filming the Stratford production of Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra last year, producer Barry Avrich turns to The Tempest, presumably because of Plummer's box-office power. Otherwise it is a very odd choice for the filmed treatment: Why take an extended metaphor for the stage and try to package it in another medium?
The play was filmed live during three performances and, in an age where computer animation can produce any magic it wants, the theatrical illusions inevitably can't bear the scrutiny of the close-up. The revolving set looks merely quaint; move in on the towering goddesses who celebrate Miranda's wedding, and you can see the glitter makeup and the body stockings. There are exceptions: Dion Johnstone's creeping Caliban, one of a series of spiny monsters who apparently populated the stage but fail to populate the film, has the most remarkable cat's eyes. However they were created in the theatre, their weirdness is perfectly captured by the camera.
Otherwise one is left simply with the performances in a film of many camera angles but little cinematic invention. (McAnuff gets credit as director; Shelagh O'Brien as camera director.) Those performances are fine and this film serves as their faithful record: The review of their merits above is based on watching the film without seeing the play. This is that worthy but rather old-fashioned (and not very expensive) thing: a filmed stage play rather than a film adaptation, and will satisfy only those who might have wished to have gone to Stratford but didn't.
- Written by William Shakespeare
- Directed by Des McAnuff
- Starring Christopher Plummer
- Classification: NA