Now that Christopher Plummer has won a much-deserved Academy Award (for his role in Beginners, but certainly also for his lifetime achievement in cinema), it seems appropriate to take a look at one of his recent stage ventures. As a Canadian, Plummer was invited by the Canadian Stratford’s annual Shakespeare Festival to star in their 2010 production of The Tempest, and this became available on DVD back in July of last year. I happily snatched up a copy from Amazon.ca. There has previously been a handful of good Canadian DVDs featuring filmed stage performances from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s ‘80s and early ‘90s productions, so I would say it’s long overdue that the practice of releasing DVD versions of good plays was resumed. I would certainly love to see more.
The new Tempest production with Plummer as Prospero is a complete joy. Successful and poetic in most ways that matter, wholesome and current in its theatrical style, featuring puzzling special effects, glorious costumes and impressive music. The directing for the film version is of a professional quality rarely seen in filmed stage versions; the camera dances and zooms around, underscoring the emotional impact of the scenes almost as if it were one of the players. The two most memorable and colorful counterpoints of the performance are those strange and transcendent avatars of the air and the earth, Ariel and Caliban, the one a child-like graceful figure (Julyana Soelistyo) clad in almost flourescent blue, and the other an athletic and physically imposing but vulnerable creature (Dion Johnstone) dressed in half green and half red leotards with enigmatic fins and draconian eyes, delightfully completing the complexity and the tragicomical duality of the character, without making him ridiculous.
Plummer’s Prospero is neither too tame nor too energetic, but succeeds in pulling you into the play and dedicating your ears to his words. The rest of the cast, as can be expected, are a bit less distinctive (although I will single out Welsh actor Geraint Wyn Davies’ Stephano, whose dialect and humor were particularly entertaining), but they keep the audience spellbound for the duration. The stage itself has only a few actual props, but the production is more than minimalist, thanks to an array of deus ex machinas in the stage floor. There are not only hatches to appear from and into; the middle of the stage can also be tilted to present a ridge or a hill, and a circular area is also able to rotate. With the kind of stage cunning that this performance has in spades, these properties make a great range of brilliant stage hijinks possible, such as having a canoe that moves around as if in a lake.
This is also one of the very few productions of this play which actually includes the three goddesses of Prospero’s pageant, Iris, Ceres and Juno. This show that Prospero puts on to celebrate the union of Miranda and Ferdinand is often shortened or ignored outright, which is deeply ill-advised, because the single most famous passage in the play, “Our revels now are ended”, etc., is in direct reference to that pageant. Fortunately, this production entirely succeeds in getting across the surpassing brilliance of this play, rightfully revealing it as one of Shakespeare’s very best works, so pregnant with meaning that the mind is kept repeatedly reeling. Anchoring the play to Ariel and Caliban is an inspired idea which attempts to explore the deeper natures of those wonder-inducing characters. And while some of the most respected current Shakespeare scholars have seen fit to dispense with the long-held idea that Prospero represents Shakespeare himself, that intriguing notion still has not run its course but will undoubtedly keep rearing its head for a long time to come.
Visually, this production cannot of course compete with a cinematic powerhouse adaptation like Taymor’s film version, but being a stage production it doesn’t have to. Confined to a close-quarters playhouse, its main function is to provide a stylish and emotional rollercoaster ride intertwined with fascinating poetry, and it does so to an extent that eclipses even the 1982 Stratford Shakespeare Festival production of the same play which is also out on DVD, and has so far been, in my estimation, the best available version of this play (and still has the best version of Miranda). Now there is a new champion, starring Christopher Plummer, and deserving of a rating of 9 stars out of 10.
Director: Des McAnuff and Shelagh O’Brien
Cast: Christopher Plummer, Trish Lindstrom, Dion Johnstone, Julyana Soelistyo, Geraint Wyn Davies and others
Runtime: 131 min.