I was surprised to see that my local theatre was showing a movie version of The Tempest with Christopher Plummer as Prospero. I was unaware that there was such a film, and this is kind of my thing.
It turned out to be a filmed version of a stage production from the Stratford Festival in Canada. I’ve seen stage plays captured on film before, and with good effect, but never in an actual movie theatre, and this was unlike any other such film I had ever seen. Footage was taken from two different performances in front of live audiences. They used 10 different cameras, so they really were able to cut from scene to scene in a very cinematic way. And the actors were all miked for the film, not the audience, so the sound quality was immaculate.
I have to admit that the immediate effect was somewhat jarring. After the opening storm scene (which is meant to be jarring) we have the scene where Prospero gives the exposition to his daughter Miranda and the audience. Here we see the effect of imposing close-ups on a medium that wasn’t designed for it. We hear and see actors emoting and projecting for an 1800-seat theatre, but right up close and personal on the big screen. This took some getting used to, but once my eyes adjusted, the artifice disappeared, belief was once again willingly suspended, and we were left with just the story.
There is a difference between seeing a stage production and a movie, and ultimately this was more like seeing the stage production. There are so many opportunities to have digitally-enhanced special effects in movies, but we quickly become jaded to these. The better the effect, the more invisible it becomes over time. However, in the theatre, the opposite is true. The magic of the stage has a much greater chance to be awe-inspiring, and this effect was preserved even as we know what we’re watching has been filmed. Just as in the theatre, we could see stagehands striking set pieces and the stage revolving to create wonderful illusions. The theatre requires much more of the audience than films do, and knowing that we are in on creating the illusion through our belief is part of the fun. Whether we’re being asked by Shakespeare to “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts” or by Peter Pan to clap for Tinkerbell, there is an actor-audience dynamic that loses something when the two don’t share the same space.
So, I was very conscious of the fact that I was watching this performance with two different audiences. First, the Stratford audience was visible and audible in the movie, which added a great deal. But there was also the audience that I was part of, sitting in an air conditioned movie theatre on a warm Sunday afternoon. The stage audience was quite often laughing and clapping along with the performance, while we in the cinema audience rarely were. And as much as I was appreciating the audience response, perhaps even needing it, it served as a constant reminder that I was one step removed from the living space. I was an audience to an audience, vicariously living out the theatrical moment.
Nevertheless, I had a transformative experience, and that’s not something I get to have too often these days. Frankly, The Tempest has never been one of my favorite plays. But as I was sitting there watching this amazing production, it occurred to me that I could not remember actually having ever seen a stage production of it. I’ve read it, held readings of it, taught it… I even led a 7th-grade class in creating a half-hour animated musical production of it, for which I edited the script. But never having seen it the way Shakespeare was meant to be performed, as they say, I never fully appreciated it until now. So maybe some of the magical fairy dust was able to find its way into the movie house after all. I do believe in fairies. I do!
Gerant-Wyn Davies stole the show as Stephano, and his scenes with Bruce Dow’s Trinculo and Dion Johnstone’s Caliban were laugh-out-loud funny. I loved the music, particularly the goddesses singing, which was a masterpiece of theatrical spectacle. Julyana Soelistyo was delightful as a spritely Ariel. And, of course, Plummer was magnificent as Prospero, drawing me into his world as though I were just another one of his hapless victims. His delivery of the most famous Prospero speeches, no more than overly familiar words to me, made me understand why they became so famous in the first place. When he finally said “I’ll drown my book” you could feel the deep sense of loss for him. I can’t say what Shakespeare had in mind, but someone was definitely saying farewell to something that was deeply profound and meaningful to him.
And, as though you hadn’t already gotten your $18 worth, there is a bonus at the end. After the play is over, the movie continues with a Q&A featuring director Des McAnuff and Plummer taking questions from the show’s producer and an audience who had viewed the film. Plummer was witty and charming, especially delighting in taking wry pot-shots at Anonymous without ever mentioning it by name. They also discuss the challenges of interpreting a stage production for the screen and some of what they’ve learned about working with The Tempest.
I don’t know how much longer this movie will be in theatres, but if you can’t see it on the big screen, it will definitely be worth checking out on a smaller screen near you.