Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film

48. Shelagh O’Brien’s film of Des McAnuff’s The Tempest  (2012)

I don’t waste a lot of words on this blog considering the theoretical consequences of adapting Shakespeare’s stage plays into film. While good stage versions are better than films, generally speaking, those stage versions can’t be watched later, and even if you see a production more than once, like I have been known to do, each night, each different seat, changes the experience.

As a Shakespeare junky, I can’t get enough of good productions, and this rogue’s travel budget is nil, so getting to see stage productions on film can be a real treat. I wish I could have seen Derek Jacobi’s production of Hamlet whose creation was documented in Discovering Hamlet to see those dramatic and directorial choices from such masters of their craft. Film allows for the expansion of setting and props and special effects, which can be a distraction. And watching stage productions on film allows the viewer to oddly feel like part of the audience in the venue.

Des McAnuff’s Tempest was performed at The Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 2010. This festival takes place not at Stratford-upon-Avon, but rather Stratford-upon—well—Ontario, Canada.

After a forgettable start, this is a wonderful film of a strange and difficult play.

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The chief attraction of this Tempest is obviously Christopher Plummer as Prospero, the world-weary wizard ruling over a wild island after being long-ago expelled from Milan, where he was once a duke. Forty-five years after portraying Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, Plummer is somehow more nuanced and expressive in this role despite the broadness of gesture required of theater. He evokes the bathos of this character, who is weird, bitter, doting, frustrated, tired, and old so that the audience can identify with his alienation from the world of men, and his immersion into his own learning, and the rule of his magical island.

Prospero is not alone on the island, as this is not a Beckett play. One of his servants is the monster Caliban, who is a recalcitrant slave to the wizard, who remembers when his mother, the witch Sycorax, ruled this island. Dion Johnstone, with an assist from the costume by Katherine Lubienski, does fine work making us think simultaneously of this as a fantasy character and as someone essentially objectified by colonization. Johnstone presents the viewer with a classic Caliban.

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Prospero’s other servant on the island is the air sprite, Ariel, and Julyana Soelistyo’s performance is remarkable. Katherine Lubienski makes Soelistyo blue, in a blue body stocking, with a little blue mohawk, so that the acrobatics of the role, combined with Soelistyo’s childish approach to the character, to seem much more persuasive as a supernatural creature.

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Soelistyo also sings three songs in the production, and makes those seem persuasive, too, rather than random bursts of song in a piece that is not, intrinsically, musical theater. Michael Roth’s music throughout makes the viewer more prepared for such tonal shifts.

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I forgot to mention Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, who is such an ingénue that she is difficult to like. Trish Lindstrom sounds a bit like a Muppet, and her long exposition with her father at the play’s opening is one of the few weak points of the performance, although part of the problem is, I would argue, with Shakespeare’s composition. Prosper (and probably Shakespeare) was less interested in the domestic relationship between father and daughter than in the magic and mayhem of this story.

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Prospero has brought to this island an important voyage from Milan through the power of the magical storm for which the play is named. This plot will entail in essence a psychodrama in which the people who betrayed him as a younger man will be punished, psychologically allowing him to return home and resume his rightful place in Milanese society. This scheme involves Miranda falling in reciprocal love with the prince of Milan.

There is a slapstick subplot involving Stephano (the alcoholic butler to the king), Trinculo (the court clown of Milan), and Caliban forming a new disordered order on this island. As Trinculo, Bruce Dow delightfully channels Paul Lynde.

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Geraint Wyn Davies plays Stephano as dryly Scottish, as if that alone were especially funny. Overall, the humor works.

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John Vickery, as Prospero’s vicious brother Antonio, manages to make the role both funny and truly menacing. His is charismatic, and shows off the complexity of Shakespeare’s vision because while Prospero forgives Atonio, Antonio never quite asks for forgiveness.

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While some characters have a moral compass and know when they have traveled poorly according to it, including Prospero himself, Vickery shows us a conscience-less man whose role in politics we know all too well.

While I criticized Trish Lindstrom’s early performance in this play, the love plot of The Tempest makes up for that, and Lindstrom and Timothy Stickney, as Ferdinand, the son of the king of Milan, remind me of the happier scenes in Romeo and Juliet, full of the giddiness of first love.

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Lindstrom’s performance got better as Miranda was given more to do and think and feel.

The Tempest

The special effects of this production tend to be quite good, and remind us nicely that this is a fantasy story, for all of its psychological angst.

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Shelagh O’Brien, who directed the televised version of this production, adds to this sense of wonder. Mostly, the non-intrusive camera angles do good enough procedural work in recording what happens on the stage, but in certain moments the camera crosses onto the stage and moves around the actors, which is a delight for the viewer at home (probably less so for the theater-goers that night).

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Des McAnuff’s Tempest is a fine introduction to the play if you are looking for one. Don’t let the first ten minutes deter you. I thank Don Royster for recommending this version to me.

John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.