The Stupid 365 Project, Day 70 (!): “The Tempest”

December 9th, 2010

Munyin and I just watched an Academy screener of Julie Taymor’s production of “The Tempest,” with Helen Mirren as a gender-switched Prospera.

It’s dazzling, exciting, jammed with CGI, and Mirren is just perfect.  (She lived in my house on Sunset Knoll for a while, and Munyin drove her to Rent-A-Wreck when she wanted to rent a car.) She’s aged beautifully; every cell in her body bristles with authority as the sorceress Prospera, who shipwrecks her enemies on the magical island where she and her daughter, forced out of the Milan she had ruled, have lived as castaways.

It’s Shakespeare’s last full play.  It’s difficult not to agree with the critics (and the artists) who have seen it for centuries as his farewell to the theater — the playwright as sorcerer, renouncing his magic, turning his back on “the great Globe itself,” as Prospera says in what I think is the single most beautiful speech in all of theater:

Our revels now are ended: these our actors

(As I foretold you) were all spirits, and

Have vanished into air, into thin air,

And like the baseless fabric of this vision

The cloud-capp’d Towers, the gorgeous Palaces,

The solemn Temples, the great Globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,

And like this insubstantial pageant faded

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on; and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

This production, like every one ever mounted, suffers from the fact that it’s almost impossible to keep going after this speech.  It’s like a gong, and it rings in the audience’s ears for half of the next scene.  The other problems are the clowns (beautifully played by Alfred Molina and Russell Brand) and the songs. Of course, the songs are always problems, and they’re handled as well here as I’ve seen them handled anywhere.

And then there’s Caliban, no less problematic a character than Shylock.  Caliban is the only character who was living on the island before the Europeans arrives, and Prospera has enslaved him and treats him quite brutally.  Taymor meets the challenge head on by casting the Benin-born Djimon Hounsou, as authentically African as any fluent English-speaking actor I can think of.  Unfortunately, in a play in which the action moves from revenge to forgiveness, only Caliban goes unforgiven: Shakespeare simply didn’t write it.  In this production there’s a long shot, after the other actors have left the scene to return to the ship, in which Mirren and Hounsou exchange a protracted, unwavering look.  One of the emotions Mirren suggests is regret, but even that is from the European perspective.  Caliban leaves as unforgiven as he arrived.

Watching the play was fascinating for me because in THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, which is the last Rafferty book I wrote, Miaow is playing Ariel in a school production of “The Tempest” that Poke has been cutting down to a length the student actors can memorize.  I directed chunks of the play in my head, because themes from the play run through the book, and one scene actually suggests to Poke the way to confront the book’s very, very bad guy, Howard Horner.

I had come up with an ending that would take some of the curse off Caliban, but the way the book worked out, there was no room for it.  But it went like this.  The final European characters exit the barren pile of rocks that represents the island — gray and severe except for the steel-blue sky on the cyclorama and the shell-like conch/peach light inside Prospero’s cell.  Then Caliban comes onstage, limping and contorted as always, and he stops and regards the island, now his again.  As he climbs the rock, he straightens until he’s walking normally, and everyplace he lays his hand, green plants rise up; the lighting warms, and by the time he’s out of sight on the other side of the rocks, the set has become lush and tropical.

So there.  I finally got to tell someone about it.

And isn’t it cool to live in an age when you can use a little silvery disk to bring Helen Mirren and Shakespeare, at the pinnacle of his power, into the living room?

11 Responses to “The Stupid 365 Project, Day 70 (!): “The Tempest””

  1. Gary Says:

    No, no! Prospero dies; then Caliban is seen weeping for him. “Why do you weep?” he is asked. “He was my father,” growls Caliban, and carries Prospero’s body to the top of the pile of rocks and immolates them both.

    Much more original.

    Seriously, the movie sounds wonderful. How long before it’s out?

  2. fairyhedgehog Says:

    I am consumed with envy that you had Helen Mirren living in your house! She is an extraordinary actress.

    I love your take on the end of The Tempest.

    I’ve never seen it performed live right to the end, to my regret. My sister and I went to a performance when we were young but we didn’t realise that it was being put on by an experimental theatre group. When one of the characters exposed himself (full frontal) on stage, we were rather taken aback. Bear in mind that this was before either of us had been in a relationship! And when some of the characters started drooling long strings of spittle onto the stage and the aisles, we decided we’d had enough and left.

    I’d like to see your more magical version of it! And I shall have to go and see Helen Mirren’s version when it comes to the UK in March.

  3. Laren Bright Says:

    Fascinating. This Shakespeare fellow sounds like he has a way with words.

  4. Larissa Says:

    I love Julie Taymore. As a Fiber Arts major she is basically God. hehe. I’ll have to get a copy of The Tempest and see it…It was my favorite of all the plays to read from Shakespeare. (c:

  5. Suzanna Says:

    Day 70 and still going strong!

    You and Shakespeare will always be closely linked in my mind since you were responsible for first introducing his work to me. So happy you did!

  6. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I love this speech, and another one-
    Full fathoms five thy father lies;
    Of his bones are coral made;
    those are pearls that were his eyes:
    Nothing of him that doth fade
    But suffer a sea-change
    Into something rich and strange.

    Shakespeare was indeed a wordsmith beyond words, and one of my friends says he was the greatest psychologist that ever lived. How lovely to have such a transformative experience on your blog. Your ending of the play is that too. Thank you.

  7. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Gary — While it’s regarded as fair game to play Shakespeare any old way — as circus clowns or on roller skates or with an all-chimp cast — the idea of actually rewriting him usually brings frowns. In fact, this movie is earning frowns from the highbrows on NPR (there’s a surprise) and the lowbrows at Entertainment Weekly, which gave it a B-. Compared to what? “Tranformer 12?” “Zombies on Broadway?” The fourth installment of the sixth “Harry Potter” book? So there’s CGI. So what? So Djiman Hounsou is sometimes incomprehensible? He’s roaring. His one great speech, the only one that’s in verse, is crystal clear. Ahhhh. It’s “The Tempest,” you know?

    Thanks for liking my ending, FHH. I just loved working the play into the book. I had a sort of brush with theater when I was in college, and the space of the stage is magical to me, so I got to play both with that and with my favorite play in the world.

    (It’s not that I dislike your ending, Gary — a funeral pyre is a boffo curtain for a comedy — it’s just, well, you know, the text.)

    Laren, he doth indeed have a way with words. That speech I quoted, by the way, is the first recorded instance of the phrase “thin air” ever being used. He also coined “catching a cold.” Whatta wordsmith.

    Riss, I’m with you. It’s THE play. As beautiful and spiritually renewing as anything ever written. The whole thing is a journey from revenge to forgiveness. And the language is incomparable.

    Zanna, thanx for the congrats. I actually feel seventy, although this is still fun. Did I really introduce you to Big Willie? Wow. Maybe I will go to heaven.

    Yes, Lil, it’s an amazing speech, one of the most perfect extended verbal images I know. I focused on it in THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, too. Ariel gets a lot of the best lines.

    Harry Golden, an essayist who wrote in the 1950s and is sadly not read these days (I didn’t read him in the fifties, folks – I’m old, but not that old), called Shakespeare’s mind, “The jewel of the universe.” I’ll go along with that.

    I’m glad you liked my ending, too. This is one of the plays I always wanted to direct back in the days when I was fooling around on the stage.

  8. EverettK Says:

    Gee, Tim, I’m surprised you had the energy or attention span to want to do ANYTHING else when you were “fooling around” on the stage… Was there an audience, or was it a “private performance?”

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    It was in public, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a form of solo sex. Bad performances are often masturbatory, even if we only use the word figuratively.

    And I am. Using the word figuratively.

    Where’s Robb? Didn’t he say he was going to post today?

  10. Suzanna Says:

    Yes, indeed, you were responsible for introducing me to Billy Shakes.

    Remember when you were working on the PBS Shakespeare productions? You used to project black and white Shakespeare movies from the 40s in your living room to a whole bunch of us. I think you showed both King Henry’s and Hamlet. Floor room only!

  11. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    I do remember. That little shack crowded with people, a 16-mm projector cranking away, everybody (except you) smoking, lots and lots of wine going around, plus the occasional hand-rolled cylinder of mystery substance. Some GREAT movies, including Keaton’s THE GENERAL with Shadoe’s ELO sound track and John Barrymore in SVENGALI. And then, in the morning, a hangover.

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