The Tempest

William Shakespeare
Stratford Festival
Stratford Festival Theatre, Ontario

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Julyana Soelistyo as Ariel and Christopher Plummer as Prospero Credit: David Hou
Christopher Plummer as Prospero and Trish Lindström as Miranda Credit: David Hou
Dion Johnstone as Caliban Credit: David Hou

We are (as Prospero says) such stuff as dreams are made on and our little life is rounded in sleep. 2020 will be remembered by theatregoers as the year when they were waiting for a brave new world to come and they could go to the theatre once again without having to keep their social distance and without wearing masks.

Des McAnuff’s production for Festival Theatre Stratford, Ontario, Canada in 2010 was filmed in front of a live audience and you can watch it now online.

I have often been bored by The Tempest. It has the most tedious exposition in all Shakespeare, barring The Comedy of Errors. Prospero goes on talking for so long that he not only sends Miranda to sleep but practically the whole audience as well.

The shipwrecked lords and their so-called witty repartee and their murderous intentions could not be more boring. And as for Stephano and Trinculo, they are one of the least funny comic double-acts in show business. I long for the day when two actors dress up as Laurel and Hardy and get on with it.

Jacobean audiences liked The Tempest because it was a masque and full of spectacular scenery, magical moments, poetry, song and dance. Actors are attracted to Prospero because of two great speeches—“Now our revels are ended” and “Ye elves of hills”—and the moving Epilogue when Shakespeare takes his farewell of the stage.

Directors and designers are attracted to The Tempest because it offers so many opportunities for so many different types of staging. The action takes place in the imagination, it is both a dream and a nightmare, it’s paradise and hell.

In Des McAnuff’s amphitheatre production, the pageant is deliberately insubstantial and the only truly magical moment is the arrival of three goddesses to bless a marriage. The goddesses, spotlit and isolated in the darkness, are fine so long as they sing and don’t talk.

Christopher Plummer is Prospero. Older theatregoers may remember seeing him on the London stage playing Danton in Georg Büchner’s play at The National Theatre and playing Henry II in Jean Anouilh’s Becket for the RSC at the Aldwych Theatre.

Plummer has authority and he can speak the verse. His Prospero, however, is not composed of harshness. He comes across as a fatherly figure, a genial schoolmaster with a sense of humour, bemused by the naïvety of his daughter Miranda and her flirting with Ferdinand. Ferdinand gets the biggest laugh of the evening when he promises his future father-in-law that he will from now on keep his sexual urges down rather than up.

Plummer’s Prospero is so genial that he knows from the start that the rarer action is in virtue rather than vengeance; he really does not need Ariel to reprimand him for his lack of humanity. It feels odd, too, when he acknowledges that Caliban, this bestial thing of darkness, is a mirror to himself.

Ariel is played as a naked little girl who is not yet pubescent. Acted by the 39-year-old Julyanna Soelistyo, Ariel, disturbingly, looks less like a dainty tricksy sprite and more like a bright blue freak. The piping voice is wrong for the thrilling “You are three men of sin” speech when she condemns the traitorous lords. Prospero is speaking though Ariel and the words would have had a far greater impact with Plummer’s sonority. It would have been easy to accomplish since Ariel is transformed at this point into a harpy and flying high above the stage.

From Thursday 10 December 2020, The Stratford Festival in Canada is streaming Christopher Plummer in Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra. I am looking forward to watching his performance.

If you were unable to catch the free stream, which ended at lunchtime on 5 December, a vast selection of top-quality Stratford Productions is available on subscription at the special introductory price of Can$10 a month. Until just before Christmas, new videos are available free every Thursday for 36 hours starting at 11:30PM London time.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch

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