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Saturday, 17 July 2010

The Tempest: Awash with Special Effects

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Des McAnuff
Desinged by Robert Brill, Paul Tazewell
The Story: Trapped on a magical island for twelve years with his daughter Miranda, the sorcerer Prospero, former Duke of Milan, conjures a storm with the help of the spirit Ariel to shipwreck his enemies to his shores. His revenge is at hand…

The Tempest is considered to be Shakespeare’s last play, written as a swan-song to his career as actor and playwright. It contains parallel story lines among vastly different characters, and some of the most beautiful, descriptive poetry in his canon. This sophistication of story and language comes with a price; not much action. There are no wars, no poisonings, no stabbings, no cross-dressing… in fact, aside from a terrific storm at the beginning of the play in which several characters are thought to be drowned, no one dies – there are two plots to kill Prospero and the King of Naples, but neither is carried out. In short, it is a very dialogue-heavy play, almost boring (gasp!) to watch.

What is does have is magic. Copious amounts of it. And in 2010 there are far more ways to bring this magic to life than in Shakespeare’s day, but. It takes a skilled director to balance both the magic and the poetry, and in the 2010 Stratford’s Tempest, the magic sadly wins, and not always in the best way, as some of the special effects are, well, cheesy (gasp!) .

Prospero’s magic cloak – made of sparkling coral and seaweed, it looks magical enough on its own without the electrical crackling and LED lights flashing on and off. Ariel’s harpy wings – magnificent in form, but with mechanical, choppy motion that sharply contrasts how Ariel (Julyana Soelistyo) moves throughout the rest of the play. Better they had remained still, instead of being made to flap, because the flapping flops. The ‘ring of fire’ – six or eight little sparklers that fizzle out randomly – fizzles metaphorically as well. Maybe they are to illustrate Prospero’s resignation of magical power, but it is a sad come-down for someone who hours before conjured a storm capable of bringing down a ship.

Many more of the effects are really quite clever (they did employ a magic coach, after all), but they all share one very important drawback – while occurring, attention is focused solely on the effect, and not what is being said by the actors. This is where the balance between magic and text is thrown off, to the detriment of many fine performances, most notably, that of Christopher Plummer. I am sure this will be corrected as this production is filmed for cinematic release, but in the meantime, the theatre audiences lose out.

Christopher Plummer does not need special effects, truth be told; one just needs to watch and listen to him instead of the effects to realize this. His prowess for speaking Shakespeare’s words like he’s having a regular conversation is near legendary, which is why the infamously long expository scene with Miranda seems to fly by. He is a feisty, at times angry, Prospero, who breaks down weeping with regret when remembering the people of Milan who loved him. He has the same power in smaller moments, and his plea at the end of the play is nearly heartbreaking as he watches the last sign of Ariel float to the floor. In fact, the relationship he has with Ariel is closer and more affectionate that that with his daughter Miranda – one gets the sense that he will have the hardest time letting Ariel go once he leaves the island behind.

This may be because Trish Lindstrom (left) plays Miranda as a more mature (and less modest) version than usually seen – she grows angry with Prospero, chastises him, and is less scared of Caliban. Her meetings with Ferdinand (Gareth Potter, far left) are played for giggles - one could say she is a lusty wench indeed. As such, father and daughter have already parted ways, and Prospero is rather more attached to the child-like Ariel.

In her blue costume Ariel looks like a water sprite, and with her mirthful, impish laugh Julyana Soelistyo (right) holds the audience in the palm of her diminutive hand. She captures the ethereal nature of Ariel in her Cirque du Soleil movements, popping up in the most unexpected places, but also the gravitas of humanity: “Do you love me, Master?” she asks in a wistful voice. She is also adept at holding a moment by remaining perfectly still, which is unfortunately not a skill shared by many actors.

There is so much to like about this production: there are wonderful performances by Geraint Wyn Davies as the drunk-as-a-skunk Stephano, Bruce Dow as the flamboyantly campy clown Trinculo (complete with Bozo-red hair and ruffle) and Dion Johnstone (left) as Caliban in a half-skeletal, half-lizard costume – he even slithers like a half-lizard, but has two glorious moments of being fully human, one of which is an acknowledgment from Prospero. The costumes are amazing, the tilting set is a feat of engineering, and both help emphasize that the play is on an island. The musical score by Michael Roth is simply lovely.

Just keep your eye on Mr. Plummer and the actors, and try not to be pixie-led by the special effects.

The Tempest continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until September 12.

2 comments:

  1. I always had believed Miranda's character was supposed to be delicate and subdued, as the women in Shakespeare's time were. Do you believe that Miranda being a more daring and 'lusty wench' was a good thing or should the actress have stuck to the original character basis?

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  2. I think the actor was probably at the mercy of the director, whose choices usually overrule how an actor would choose to interpret a character. That's the beauty of theatre though - if a character was played the same in every production, it would be pretty boring. Changing how characters are interpreted keeps live theatre exciting, and keeps 400-year-old plays fresh...

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