The Tempest

The Tempest may be the Shakepsearean equivalent to Berlioz’s Les Troyens, in other words, a work that most everyone agrees is a masterpiece, but one that nobody knows how to pull off in a production. To date, it seems the most successful adaptations have taken rather radical approaches to adapting it, including Greenaway’s Propsero’s books, Jarman’s version, the famous Sci-fi Forbidden Planet, and even Julie Taymor’s upcoming release which has Helen Mirren as a female Prospero. That said, this 1983 William Woodmen “faithful” stage adaptation may prove why it’s so difficult to do a “straight” adaptation, because it’s easily the worst adaptation of the play I’ve seen, and maybe the worst Shakespeare adaptation I’ve seen period.  

For those who don’t know the story, Prospero (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) has been stranded on an Island with his daughter, Miranda (J.E. Taylor), after being exiled from his dukedom in Milan. On the island he’s learned magic, and has called to his aid the enthralled spirit, Ariel (Duane Black), and the aboriginal beast, Caliban (William Hootkins). When a ship comes nearby, Prospero cooks up a Tempest that causes its inhabitants to crash on the Island, including the handsome Ferdinand (Nicholas Hammond) who becomes the suitor to Miranda), Propsero’s usurping brother, Antonio (Ted Sorel), and his partner, Gonzalo (Kay E. Kuter).

The idea behind the production was to replicate the play as it would’ve been seen in the 17th Century, with its characters is period theater dress (including tights where the legs are different colors), and all taking place on a single stage with a single setting. In theory, a play like The Tempest, which abides by the Classic Aristotelian Unities (Action, Place, Time), could support such a concept, but the production’s major flaw is in its execution, rather than in its concept. Namely, it has a cast that can’t breathe any life into the characters, and the production itself manages to sap all of the magic out of what is, perhaps, Shakespeare’s most magical play (along with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at least).

So where to start with the bad? Efrem Zimbalist Jr. looks the part of the aged and powerful Prospero, and he’s not terrible in the part, but he is frightfully dull. J.E. Taylor doesn’t know how to act without overacting, and sobbing every line given to her. Nicholas Hammond is a statuesque Ferdinand but, unfortunately, he maintains all of the linguistic and acting charm of a statue as well. None of his shipmates are better, and the scenes with the duke, Antonio, and Gonzalo are just painfully tedious to watch. Is there a glimmer of good? Well, William Hootkins is a full-bodied Caliban, and even manages to bring quite a few touches of poignancy of the role. It’s a shame that Woodman seems more intent on focusing on the slapstick scenes with the character instead of the more emotional ones. But Hootkins is good if only for his ability to embody the part, but even he’s guilty of occasional over acting.

Not a single actor in the lot manages to bring Shakespeare’s sparkling language to life. Even the famous Our Revels Now Are Ended speech is sapped of any hint of vitality. But, beyond the actors, the real shame is the fact that the production utterly fails to capture any hint of the plays lyricality. If The Tempest has become as popular as it is, it’s likely based on its Zephyr-like ephemerality, with flows along like sparkling water. It’s a play where the magic lies almost between the words, and in the liquidity of the pacing and in the subtle notes of metafictional farewells, which was captured quite well in Neil Gaiman’s The Tempest issue of Sandman in which Morpheus plays an analog to Shakespeare and Propsero.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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