Review: THE TEMPEST (At Stratford)

by Lynn on July 16, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Festival Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Antoni Cimolino

Designed by Bretta Gerecke

Lighting by Michael Walton

Composed by Berthold Carrière

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Graham Abbey

Rod Beattie

Wayne Best

Michael Blake

David Collins

Alexis Gordon

Sébastien Heins

Martha Henry

Tom McCamus

André Morin

Lucy Peacock

Chick Reid

André Sills

E.B. Smith

Stephen Ouimette

Johnathan Sousa

Emilio Vieira

Mamie Zwettler

And others.

An impressive production that is technically dazzling with a towering performance by Martha Henry as Prospero.

The Story. NOTE: The Tempest is Shakespeare’s last play that he wrote himself. It shows a playwright at the top of his powers who deals with wisdom and forgiveness. Shakespeare wrote the part of Prospero for a man but was so intuitive, so sensitive to his characters, that there are also aspects of Prospero that would not be out of place in a woman. Therefore Martha Henry is playing Prospero as a woman. But first the story as Shakespeare wrote it:

Prospero was the Duke of Milan but was usurped by his brother. The brother put the Duke and his three-year-old daughter Miranda in a leaky boat to sail off in the hopes it would sink and all on board would drown. But luck was on Prospero’s side. The boat didn’t sink and he and Miranda landed safely on a deserted island except for two unlikely creatures, Ariel and Caliban. Ariel is a helpful, almost courtly spirit who does Prospero’s bidding.

Caliban is a bitter creature “..not honoured with/A human shape.” Caliban’s mother was a cruel witch named Sycorax who had died years before. When Prospero and Miranda came to the island Prospero found Ariel imprisoned in a tree by Sycorax.

Caliban was about twelve-years-old when Prospero and Miranda arrived. Caliban showed them the wonders of the island, how to find food etc. And Prospero took him in, had him staying in their ‘cell’, taught him civilized ways.  During the twelve years leading to the beginning of the play Caliban grew and his hormones raged and at one point he attempted to rape the very young Miranda (“thou didst seek to violate/The honour of my child.”) For that Prospero keeps him in a cave away from them and gives him the grunt work and treats him roughly and with disdain.

Prospero and Miranda stay on the island for 12 years until Prospero gets even with his enemies. He conjures a storm that brings all the people who wronged him to his island, but without harming them, so he could exact his revenge.

The Production. NOTE: The Tempest was supposed to open the Festival season on May 28 but a bomb threat received by the police 45 minutes before curtain cleared the theatre and cancelled the performance. The production’s ‘opening’ was rescheduled for June 10th. Every member of that cast brought his and her best game. The audience was up for the experience and that made the production and being there for it into an important event of defiance. Nothing happened this time except that I saw one of the best productions of this play or any play that I have seen in a long time.

 While the play/story refers to Prospero as a man, for the purposes of this production I will refer to Prospero as a woman.

 As the audience files in, Martha Henry as Prospero quietly enters on the balcony section of the stage and sits reading her book of magic spells. When all is ready she closes her book, raises her staff and conjures the storm that will bring her brother, other plotters and courtiers who were loyal to her, to her island.

 Martha Henry is a towering actor and shows the many layers to Prospero—both as a loving parent and an angry person who has been betrayed by her brother and her court.

She will get even.

Antoni Cimolino has directed this production with great style, intelligence, a sense of the panoramic vision and the drama of the piece. Cimolino has an impish yet sharp sense of humour that comes out in his staging of some comedic business. I am particularly struck with the humour in the scene in which Caliban tries to hide under a sheet from Stephano and Trinculo and they hide under it as well with unpleasant results. Cimolino finds comedic moments where I’d never seen them before and it all works a treat.

There is also a sense of the sweep of that vision in designer Bretta Gerecke’s design, in particular the dazzling costumes of Juno (Lucy Peacock), the spirits and monsters. Michael Walton’s lighting and Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design conjures a dark and forbidding world. But there is also light and a sense of hope and uplifting when Miranda (Mamie Zwettler) sees the dashing Ferdinand (Sébastien Heins) for the first time and both are smitten.

And at the centre of it all is Martha Henry as Prospero. It’s as if every actor raised their game to try and meet her on equal footing. She is one of this country’s most celebrated stage actresses and every person in that theatre and on that stage knew it. You could feel it in the air. The silence in that place was amazing. It’s a performance of quiet power. Martha Henry touches and kisses Miranda’s (Mamie Zwetler) hair and cheek very often. This is a tactile, loving mother.

But she brooks no sass from anyone and to get this Prospero’s stare is to see a character whither instantly.  Prospero wrath and contempt is focused on Caliban (Michael Blake). Ariel (André Morin) is used as a spirit who could manipulate people or lead them a merry chase—Prospero has a more considerate attitude towards Ariel, respecting his intellect, perhaps because Ariel stands up to Prospero but with quiet firmness. Ariel wanted something from Prospero—freedom. Prospero promises him freedom after some tasks are completed.

Ariel is played with dignity and graciousness by Andrć Morin. It’s a performance that suggests a spiritual other world, something not human but of course Ariel is eminently human, watchful, observant and absorbs

The casting of the part of Caliban is tricky. He is played wonderfully by Michael Blake.

Mr. Blake is an actor of colour—quite often the actor playing Caliban is black. There is uncomfortable subtext in that casting—it references slavery in the United States, being treated with disdain because of skin colour and suggests a sense of being lesser. Blake plays Caliban with wounded resentment of course but he has benefited from Prospero’s teaching about the world. Blake is not a stereotypical ‘villain’ but a character whose attitude and anger we can appreciate. This is a Caliban with his own grace, an ability to judge the lousy characters of Trinculo and Stephano and show another side of humanity to that of Ariel.  This is some of the best work I’ve seen Michael Blake do.

Mamie Zwettler is a sweet, innocent Miranda. She is ably matched by Sébastien Heins as Ferdinand, her love-struck prince. Heins is courtly and loving to his Miranda—a prince in every way.

Comment. We live at a time when gender-bending casting is a trend. Is this a gimmick here? No. Martha Henry has been asked that and she has said that there are lines of Prospero’s that could be said with the same clarity and feeling as a woman. For example Prospero talks about “crying salt tears” as he and Miranda set off in that unsafe boat  and Henry feels that a man or woman could say it with as much compassion as the other. Prospero is a parent, a notion that can be embraced by both men and women. Women can be as angry and vindictive and revenge-seeking as a man. And a women can be as strong, intelligent and as bold a leader as a man can.

This is a production of power, integrity, grit, compassion, impressive, imaginative direction and some of the best acting anywhere. It was electrifying to be there and see Martha Henry give this towering performance and know that everybody else upped their game as a matter of course. Thrilling.

(Interesting note: Miranda was the first role Martha Henry played on the Festival stage at Stratford to William Hutt’s Prospero. In a neat tip of the hat to Hutt and a passing on of Hutt’s tradition Martha Henry waved at the audience, as Hutt did, to signify that was the end of the bows and we could all go home.)

 Presented by the Stratford Festival

Opened: June 10, 2018.

Closes: Oct. 26, 2018.

Running Time: 3 hours.

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