The Tempest is the major draw of the 2010 Stratford Festival season, starring as it does the incomparable Christopher Plummer in the role of the beleaguered castaway and learned sorcerer, Prospero. As incredible as Plummer is in the role (and he is, indeed, incredible), it is a testament to the strength of the cast and of McAnuff's vision that the evening does not rest solely on Plummer's shoulders. Nearly every element of the production comes together to produce an evening of melancholic beauty, of world-weary passion, and of great pathos and humour.
For me, The Tempest has always been a problematic play. I read it as a student, have seen two previous productions, and I could never quite come to terms with the many seemingly contradictory elements in Shakespeare's text. Is Prospero a loving father and helpless political exile, or is he an overbearing tyrant who was rightfully expunged, one who treats his daughter as chattel? I mean, seriously, right there in the opening expository scene he puts her to sleep to avoid her incessant questions! Why is Caliban viewed so terribly simply because of his physical appearance, while the sprite Ariel is revered so highly by Prospero? Why is Stephano, the drunken butler, so easily led into violence against his only true friend and confederate, Trinculo? These questions so often swirl around in my head as I read or watch the play. Thankfully, McAnuff's beautiful, mystical production answers them, and does so with great panache. Theatrical magic is so rarely employed in such expert ways.
In the pivotal roles of the servants of Prospero, Ariel the Sprite, and Caliban the monstrous slave, McAnuff's casting is superb. Julyana Soelistyo makes an ethereal, eerily beautiful little imp of a sprite as Ariel; Soelistyo is remarkable as she fairly floats around the stage, haunting the drunken servants Trinculo and Stephano, casting spells on the newly shipwrecked inhabitants of Prospero's island with her strange vocals and her impish grin and giggles. Caliban, played to monstrously heartbreaking perfection by Dion Johnstone, is the polar opposite of Ariel in every way: he is a creature of baseness, vile, half-human, half-fish. Johnstone's line delivery is violent; he spits out his lines with all the venom of a being who has been born of evil and who is inextricably linked to evil. Johnstone's Caliban, however, also displays a heartbreaking innocence, a yearning for acceptance, a desire to be loved that is so strong it is almost devastating when we watch him licking the soles of drunkard Stephano's feet, thinking he has found a kind new master to replace the perceived tyranny of Prospero. This beautiful production highlights these characters in new ways, and at the end when Prospero forgives Caliban his betrayal and accepts him as his own, it is as if McAnuff has found a new layer in the subtext of the play: Shakespeare himself acknowledges the beauty and passion of his writing (symbolized by Ariel), as well as all of the base humour and filth he often employs to entertain us (Caliban).
As the fatuous young lovers Miranda and Ferdinand, Trish Lindstrom and Gareth Potter are a well-matched duo. Each seems to take an immense pleasure in the ridiculousness of their instant love, but the audience goes along with it without question. Potter's wide-eyed infatuation with Miranda is a joy to watch; in one particularly hilarious sequence, he confesses his "love" for Miranda using the rather large logs he has been tasked with moving as props to describe how great his love for her truly is. Lindstrom, too, is a joy. She seems constantly on the verge of hysteria, which makes sense. Poor Miranda has never before seen a man, and her sudden attraction to Ferdinand simultaneously horrifies and excites her. Never before have I seen so many grimaces morph into horrified grins, such sheer beautifully excited terror. Lindstrom and Potter manage to make such a ridiculous romance seem just as natural as if it had been blossoming for years.
In the hysterical roles of Trinculo the clown and Stephano the butler, another casting coup is accomplished. Bruce Dow, Stratford veteran of eleven seasons, takes the clown Trinculo to an entirely over-the-top level. He preens, whines, screams, minces, and drinks to excess. Dow is at his best when he speaks directly to the audience, defensively I might add, about his decision to hide under "[Caliban's] gaberdine." Equally drunk and equally hilarious, Geraint Wyn Davies' Stephano is a clownish portrayal containing just enough menace, however, to prevent him from going quite over the top. When Caliban joins up with Stephano, believing him to be a god, Davies' Stephano seems to truly believe he may indeed be a god. The trio that is formed is truly a delightful comic group.
Finally, we come to the main attraction of this year's Festival, the incomparable Christopher Plummer as Prospero. Plummer, in his tenth season at the Stratford Festival, is simply superb. He brings to the role of Prospero something I did not expect: humour. Plummer consistently finds humour in many of Shakespeare's lines and situations. Some of the most memorable moments of the evening come when Plummer doesn't even have lines; for example, Prospero listening in on the idiotic drivel being spoken by Miranda and Ferdinand; all Plummer has to do is cock his head and chuckle, and the entire audience is in stitches. This is a Prospero who knows how ridiculous his predicament is; Mr. Plummer finds in Shakespeare's Prospero a witty and observant sage, world-weary, yes, but also delighting in all of the foolishness that comes with being human. Plummer plays the role in such an understated and calming way that it comes as a bit of a shock when Prospero does let loose and rage; in one particularly powerful scene, the seemingly peaceful Prospero slams down the lid of the pianoforte and begins to rage in such a manner that even the goddesses Iris, Ceres and Juno disappear. Perhaps the best and most touching scenes of the evening are between Prospero and Ariel, his devoted servant. The juxtaposition of the large and powerful voice of Plummer with Soelistyo's quiet, calm Ariel is powerful. Their scenes truly display the mutual love and affection of the characters for one another; when Prospero finally frees Ariel, she seems almost reluctant to leave. It is a very powerful and moving moment, as is Plummer's final moments on stage. At the performance I attended, when he asked the audience to free him from the island with their applause, there seemed a unified and palpable moment of dissentnone of us were sure we wanted to let him go.
Des McAnuff's production is marvellous, employing every magical trick in the book. Draperies and sails appear and disappear in swirls of magic, Prospero ascends from the floor and is suspended magically in sitting position above the stage when he confronts those who overthrew him, and Ariel appears and disappears magically all over the stage. McAnuff wisely employs the expertise of Greg Kramer, magic coach and member of Society of American Magicians, to create an island as mystical and wondrous as Shakespeare's text deserves. Also adding to the beauty and mystery of the evening is the wonderful score composed by Michael Roth; Roth's music is dissonant and unsettling, but can also beguile and transfix. Particularly beautiful is the song of the goddesses as they give their consent to the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand.
The Tempest runs at the Stratford Festival through September 12, 2010, at the Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario. For information and tickets, please visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.